Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

by delarue

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far he can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 

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