Concert Hall (Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash)

Stop Celebrating Composition Premieres!

I recently attended the opening night of the Royal Conservatory’s 21C New Music Festival. It was a great evening of music by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and featured compositions by the likes of Terry Riley (who was present) and several amazing and dynamic Canadian composers.

Before the concert began, RCM’s Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, gave an eloquent introduction to the evening’s performances and what audiences could expect for the week-long festival. In his remarks, Mr. Mehta emphasized and praised the large number of composition premieres that were to take place at the festival. This emphasis in promotion is not new to the world of classical music. Classical music institutions have long lauded their emphasis on being the first to present a new work by a living composer. It’s an understandable PR spin…what audience member wouldn’t feel special that they were the first to hear something?

But after this concert, I started to think about the repercussions of always promoting the premiere of a composition. By getting so excited over such an event, are we giving classical music institutions the excuse to not perform the same composition again? Isn’t it more of an achievement for a composer to have his/her composition performed again (and again, and again), rather than the first (and often only) time?

I have long talked about Modern Classical Music’s image problem. To be blunt, the average music connoisseur can find some of the music “weird”. But, there’s so much emotionally-engaging new music out there. How is this image problem overcome? It’s easy…ask an audience if they liked what they heard! If a group premieres a new work, simply ask the audience after the performance, did you like this? Do you think we should perform it again? If the combined replies to those 2 questions are positive, then play it again! Through repetition, more and more people will learn about the work and a buzz will grow. It’s sort of taking the idea from Broadway’s marketing playbook, x number of performances of XYZ musical…etc. Wow, if it had that number of performances, it must be great! I want to go see that performed. Do you think if most orchestras did not perform Beethoven’s 5th on such a regular basis, it would be considered the masterpiece it is?

Since most new music rarely gets a 2nd or 3rd performance, how is it fathomable to think that an audience would grow to have an appreciation or emotional connection to new music?

I know that my position here is going to piss off some of my fellow composers. If groups start performing the same pieces, that means less chance and inclusivity for others to have their music heard. But my thought is if you can make the public excited about new music, then the groups will see a trend and commission more new works instead of programming historic music.

So let’s stop giddily jumping up and down celebrating a premiere. Instead, let’s applaud, revere and talk about those works that have been played over and over again. We’ll create a richer and more vibrant music-going experience if we do.

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