Where does new music belong?

When I was 16, a concert changed my life. I’ve written

about it here before: it was the London Symphony, under Kent Nagano, playing

Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. Read my piece from

2002 if you want to know that story; my point here is to say that that one concert

was sufficient to get me hooked on new music in general.

In the two or three years following that evening, I actively sought out all

the new music I could find. Most of it was played at the Purcell Room in London,

one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world, small (and

subsidised) enough that adventurous programming was welcomed with open arms.

It was there that I learned about all the big names of the post-war classical

music world: Boulez, Xenakis, Cage, Stockhausen, and more relatively unknown

British composers than you could shake a stick at. I basically got my classical

education by working backwards from these guys: occasionally a Webern piece,

say would come up, I’d get into him, and then at the next Webern concert I’d

find something even more mainstream, and so on.

Meanwhile, my mother, emboldened by my enthusiastic response to the Messiaen,

started educating me on her favourites, especially Bartók. Wonderfully,

Sir Georg Solti was still very much alive and active on the London scene, and

I went to many concerts he conducted of his beloved fellow Hungarian. To this

day, Solti remains the conductor I feel most fondly towards: I can still vividly

remember his kindly face, and the blood-quickening sounds he could get out of

the LSO once he really got his teeth into something like Mahler’s First. There

are many conductors I respect, but Solti had a knack of engendering something

closer to love – I daresay Leonard Bernstein did something similar in

New York.

Solti was one of those conductors who inspires enough devotion among his listeners

that they will follow him to pastures new. Simon Rattle is another: when he

turned people on to classical music, it wasn’t a narrow swathe of Brahms and

Beethoven, but a vast range of music from Handel and Monteverdi to Henze and

Messiaen, and beyond.

Rattle is one of those conductors – Michael Tilson Thomas, in San Francisco,

springs to mind as another – who makes successful attempts to place new

music at the heart of any concert season. Such people are rare, however, and

the example of Nicholas Kenyon, who always throws an enormous quantity of new

music into any Proms season, only really goes to show what is possible when

you’re supported by Auntie Beeb rather than octogenarian subscribers who start

getting nervous when they see Richard Strauss on the bill.

A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto Symphony caused a small stir in classical

music circles when they announced, in the

words of Greg Sandow, that "they’re going to banish new music from

their regular season, at least for this year, and stick it off by itself in

a few concerts next spring". (I can’t link to the original story, because

it’s behind a subscriber firewall, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of

press release on the official Toronto Symphony website.) Sandow, along with

Alex Ross,

refused to condemn this action: if new music isn’t working in what Ross calls

a "ghastly ritual, generating reams of five- and twenty-minute pieces that

serve no vital function", then why not try an alternative method of delivering


While I understand where Sandow and Ross are coming from, I fear the Toronto

experiment is doomed to failure. Full-scale symphony orchestras are expensive

animals, and new-music concerts aimed at under-30 members coaxed with $10 tickets

are guaranteed to lose large amounts of money. The minute that the orchestra

runs into budget difficulties (and there isn’t an orchestra in the world which

doesn’t run into budget difficulties), the new-music concerts will be the first

to go. New music simply doesn’t work as a bolted-on afterthought: it has to

be an integral part of what an orchestra does, or it is nothing.

One way of doing this, of course, is for an orchestra to specialise in new

music. The experience of the Brooklyn Philharmonic is disheartening, but a look

across the pond at the London Sinfonietta shows that it is possible to run a

successful, high-profile orchestra with consistently interesting and daring


In the US, the prime example, although of course it is not an orchestra and

therefore doesn’t have nearly the same kind of struggles with overhead costs,

is the Kronos Quartet. I went to see them perform Terry Riley’s Sun Rings

at BAM last night, and it was quite a sight to behold, even before the performance

started. The large opera house was completely sold out, even though there were

three separate performances featuring nothing but this single piece by a composer

who’s mainly known for one work he wrote in 1964.

Clearly, there’s a huge audience for new music if it’s done right. And the

main lesson of last night’s concert, for me, was that the audience really has

to be able to trust the performers. A couple of posts ago, I worried

about going to see a new opera at Glyndebourne: evidently, I don’t completely

trust the house to put on a great show. And the Death of Klinghoffer

fiasco last December was

proof enough for anybody that the Brooklyn Philharmonic and BAM are not the

kind of brand names which can be trusted with new music.

The Kronos Quartet, however, with more than 30 years of history, has managed

to create a brand name which people know they can trust. The score for Sun

Rings did not require particularly virtuoso playing: probably there are

a dozen other quartets who could have sat in those chairs and done an equally

good job. But the production here was immaculate: no costs were cut, the very

best designers and singers were hired, and everybody worked with each other

to create a whole which was greater than the sum of its parts – quite

the opposite of the regrettable Klinghoffer situation.

I’m not going to say much about Sun Rings itself: while I greatly

enjoyed the concert, and am extremely glad I went, I have serious misgivings

about the final movement, with visuals straight out of the annual report of

a major multinational polluter and an annoying woman’s voice intoning something

about One Earth One People One Love. Other than that, the piece is excellent,

and the video footage of the surface of the sun, especially, was glorious.

My broader point is that the audience clearly had a great experience last night,

and, if given the choice, most of them will come back for more. There are many

wonderful works written for full orchestra rather than for string quartet which

could get a similar reaction. What New York lacks – what, I daresay, America

lacks – is an institution which has successfully invested itself in performing

those pieces. The problem, as I see it, with the Toronto approach is that if

it doesn’t work, little if any harm is done to the orchestra as a whole. New

music is hard work, and if the costs of failure are low or even negative, then

no one’s going to expend much effort in making sure it works. The Kronos Quartet

managed to sell out BAM for three successive nights because their audience knows

that they care about new music, and have a history of getting it right. There

are precious few other US organisations about whom the same can be said.

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3 Responses to Where does new music belong?

  1. jen says:

    Another excellent group: Bang on a Can. Very enjoyable concerts and they are not afraid to teach a little. I’ve been to three concerts that were packed with interested music-lovers eager to learn.

  2. AQM says:

    Hilary Duff

    Where does new music b…

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