It takes a lot of guts to tell a composer that their new piece is not in any shape to be performed
Imagine a man walking past a new made-to-measure shop and seeing a nice-looking suit in the window. He walks in, tells the tailor he's a size 42, would like something in a grey Glen plaid with pleated and cuffed trousers the following Friday afternoon, pays in full and then walks out.
This is just asking for trouble on delivery day, isn't it?
I was wondering last night at the Soundstreams concert how often commissions for new music happen exactly like this.
Very, very few composers write on spec; most work to fill commissions that come, usually, because the commissioner has some experience with this composer's work -- but not always. Often, the piece has to be programmed for a subscription season well before anyone has seen a finished score. Sometimes the finished score doesn't arrive until two weeks before performance night, meaning that, aside from last-minute tweaks, one is stuck with the fabric and cut, like it or not.
In my review of the concert, I didn't have the space to say how awful I thought two of the three premieres (Javier Alvárez's Dias como sombra and Analia Llugdar's El sueño de Aquiles) were. A third piece, Raúl Tudón's 2009 Rhythmic Structure of the Wind, was interesting in its improvisational potential, but ultimately more of a curiosity than a composition.
Do I hate new music? No. But when people experiment without using the full potential of your accompanists (four skilled percussionists, in this instance), deconstruct the text so that it becomes unintelligible and fail to tie it all together with a coherent narrative thread, what's left to enjoy?
On the other hand, risk-free music is not an option for a living artform. Too many orchestras, opera companies and soloists prefer buying off-the-rack. But there are ways of improving the likelihood of a positive outcome. The most important, I would think, is the need for a strong artistic voice from the commissioner, who provides detailed instructions to the composer and is prepared to declare that the new work is not ready for public performance if the result isn't to their liking.
How many artistic directors of new music organizations have the guts to say to a composer, sorry, this is not good? Does too much of our new music scene embrace the view that all creation is good? It it a No Composer Left Behind policy?
I want to illustrate my point with someone we can all relate to: Chopin -- an unassailable great, lauded and magnified during this, his 200th anniversary year. But, someone snuck a real clunker into his posthumous catalogue, a fugue that was probably a personal musical exercise. It has an excellent subject, but Chopin runs out of ideas after introducing the third voice. It's no surprise that most pianist steer clear.
Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy, making it sound as uninteresting as possible: