Music That Lives Beyond Its Premiere
By BARBARA JEPSON - February 3, 2006
From the New York Times
Many a composer has enjoyed the fleeting celebrity that accompanies a world premiere, only to see the work languish in obscurity afterward. "We call them one-shot deals," said Ingram Marshall, whose eclectic music has been played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the Kronos Quartet and others. "If it's a commission, you're paid, and you're obviously very grateful. But you also hope the piece will have a life beyond its first performance."
To help achieve that objective, an increasing number of concert presenters have jointly commissioned new works in recent years, a cost-effective strategy that ensures at least two or three performances in different locales. Now two imaginative projects have expanded the geographical reach of premieres even farther: The Cheswatyr New Music Initiative, via radio broadcasts and touring; and the Ford Made in America program, by sponsoring performances of a single new piece by a mega-consortium of 65 orchestras, including one in each of the 50 states.
Both projects will present concerts here this weekend. Tomorrow evening at Carnegie Hall, under the aegis of the Cheswatyr New Music Initiative, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will give the world premiere of "Brick" by Marc Mellits. An emerging composer, Mr. Mellits writes in a post-Minimalist style informed by the formal structures of Baroque music. The concert will be broadcast live by WNYC-FM (93.9), preserved in sound archives on its Web site (WNYC.org) and broadcast later by about 225 National Public Radio affiliates on "Performance Today" or "Symphony Cast" programs.
Orpheus will also perform the piece eight more times during a European tour that begins this month. Next year it will play and tour a new work by Mr. Marshall, who received the second Cheswatyr commission.
On Sunday afternoon, the Greenwich Village Orchestra performs Joan Tower's "Made in America" at the Washington Irving High School in Manhattan. This volunteer orchestra, which has an annual budget of $58,000, is the 23rd member of the Ford Made in America consortium to present Ms. Tower's work. Inspired by "America the Beautiful," the piece received its premiere last October, by the Glens Falls Symphony in upstate New York. Also this weekend, it is being performed by the Charlottesville and University Symphony in Virginia, the San Angelo Symphony in Texas and the Evanston Symphony in Illinois. The next stop is the Walla Walla Symphony in Washington on Tuesday.
While major American orchestras have annual budgets of $15 million or more, 52 of the 65 Ford consortium members have budgets of less than $880,000. The project originated during a meeting of the leaders of small-budget orchestras belonging to the American Symphony Orchestra League. Wanting to make the presence of their orchestras felt, they decided to pool their resources to commission a new work.
Each of the initial participants contributed $1,000, and those presenting four regional premieres kicked in a few thousand more.
Once the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer became involved in this grassroots effort, the number of orchestras expanded. Financing was obtained from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts and other sponsors. That made it possible to commission a prominent composer, create a Web site (fordmadeinamerica.org), and provide educational and promotional materials to the participants.
"The program equips small-budget orchestras with everything they need to gain the confidence and skills to present the music of our time," said Henry Fogel, president of the league.
As a result of its involvement in the $750,000 project, one community orchestra got its first review in nearly a decade; normally, coverage is limited to its higher-budget symphonic rival. In Glens Falls, where the symphony's performances are usually covered by The Schenectady Daily Gazette, orchestra administrators persuaded the editorial board of the local newspaper, which is primarily sports-oriented, to provide advance feature coverage.
"We told them that having Joan Tower here for this world premiere was like having Joe Torre come up and coach the local baseball team," said Robert Rosoff, the orchestra's executive director.
The $120,000 Cheswatyr initiative came about because Cecille Wasserman, the president of the Cheswatyr Foundation, wanted to underwrite new music. She approached contacts at WNYC, which began commissioning works in 1994 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Together, they discussed how to provide multiple broadcasts and performances beyond the premiere. National Public Radio was a natural partner, as was the American Music Center, which administers the program. Orpheus was selected because of its high profile, musical excellence and record in commissioning new works.
Each participating institution will contribute something in the form of services. For Orpheus, it is rehearsal time; for WNYC, it is the cost of sending sound technicians to Carnegie Hall. Each suggested three candidates for the first two years' commissions.
"We sat around a table, listening to recordings and discussing for hours," said Graham Parker, the general director of Orpheus. In the first round of voting, there was an immediate consensus for Mr. Mellits and Mr. Marshall, They had both been nominated by John Schaefer, the host of "Soundcheck" and "New Sounds" on WNYC.
Cooperative ventures between commissioning organizations, broadcast partners and performers are common overseas, Mr. Schaefer has said, but rare in the United States. So the radio coverage stemming from the Cheswatyr commissions is especially valuable to the composers. And Orpheus benefits as well. "The radio exposure for Orpheus will help enhance its national touring presence," Mr. Parker said.
Aside from their geographical scope, the Cheswatyr New Music Initiative and the Ford Made in America project offer other attractions to these composers. For Mr. Mellits, 39, whose chamber music has been championed by the Sérgio and Odair Assad guitar duo and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Orpheus commission is his first shot at an orchestral piece. Mr. Marshall, 69, an inveterate reviser, relishes the chance to work with Orpheus, a conductorless chamber orchestra whose longer, more collaborative rehearsal process resembles that of a string quartet.
"I can actually talk to the players," said Mr. Marshall, whose works show the disparate influences of Indonesian music, electronic techniques and early American hymns. "I don't have to have this intermediary etiquette, with the conductor turning around and yelling back, 'Did the trumpet sound better?' And you yell back, 'Yeah, I guess so,' because the clock is ticking and you don't have time to run up to the stage and say to the trumpet player, 'Try it with this mute.' "
For the 67-year-old Ms. Tower, whose works have been performed here and abroad by a number of prestigious ensembles, working with smaller-budget orchestras has proved illuminating. So far, she has attended eight of the consortium performances and conducted four herself. In the process, she said, she has been charmed by the enthusiasm of the players; appreciative, like Mr. Marshall, of the increased opportunities to make small corrections or refinements in her score; and wowed by the overall community response.
"This is a phenomenal example of how a living composer could be treated," Ms. Tower said. "There's press, dinners, receptions — wonderfully welcoming. It's very refreshing."
Yet the nature of the consortium also presented challenges for her. Where Mr. Mellits and Mr. Marshall benefit from repeated performances by Orpheus, Ms. Tower's piece must be learned anew by each participating orchestra.
"The piece grows into itself a lot quicker when it's the same group of musicians," said Mr. Schaefer, who will be the host of the live broadcast tomorrow night. Moreover, Mr. Mellits and Mr. Marshall know exactly whom they're writing for. Indeed, Mr. Mellits's 20-minute piece includes a solo passage for the Orpheus bassoonist Frank Morelli, whom the composer has long admired from afar.
By contrast, Ms. Tower had to create a piece capable of performance by musicians ranging from youth orchestras to higher-budget regional orchestras like the Vermont and Honolulu symphonies. That necessity imposed artistic limitations on her score. Ms. Tower, who spent part of her childhood in Bolivia, is known for her lively rhythms and colorful use of percussion. Since many of the orchestras involved have, in addition to a timpanist, only one other percussion player, she was asked to confine her writing accordingly.
And she wrestled with other technical concerns, balancing them against her musical objectives. "There was one place where I wanted to go high," Ms. Tower said, "so I gave the high part to the first violinist only, and backed it up with the rest of the section an octave lower. But I went a little too high on the trumpets. And that," she added with a laugh, "was because of bad advice from a trumpet player, who was being a little macho. The solution is that they can play this one section on the piccolo trumpet."
How well did she succeed?
"It's really playable," said Barbara Yahr, who conducts Sunday's performance by the 70-member Greenwich Village Orchestra, a predominantly amateur group buttressed by conservatory students and Broadway musicians. "There are a couple of difficult trumpet parts and some fast, chromatic string passages. Some of the technical challenges are not so much just having great chops but really attending to all the details. And when you insist on what Joan has written, stopping and tormenting the orchestra with little picky things, there's music in the room, and everyone feels it."
The Cheswatyr New Music Initiative and the Ford Made in America projects serve as models for the ways commissioning organizations can maximize their investments in living composers. But even these noble efforts have limitations. "You can provide multiple performances and broadcasts, but you can't make people listen," Mr. Schaefer said.
Ultimately, history will render its verdict, and many currently successful pieces may fall by the wayside, whether or not they have enjoyed broader exposure. Meanwhile, programs that circumvent the one-shot syndrome serve listeners and composers alike.
"All you want is to get your music out there, for people to hear," Mr. Mellits said. "Just give it a chance."