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Observation: Familiarity breeds content and finer performances in new music and old

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(Robert Weber cartoon from The New Yorker.)
(Robert Weber cartoon from The New Yorker.)

Earlier this week at a social event, I chatted with a composer-interpreter couple. The performer’s ensemble has a new piece by the composer in its everyday concert repertoire this season, and they both observed how frequent repetition has benefited everyone — including the piece itself.

The performer observed how we practice canonic pieces obsessively, honing them, revisiting them, doing everything possible to translate a personal connection into a meaningful musical story for the listener.

That’s quite the challenge when the score for a new commission has arrived two weeks before the premiere, and there are a limited number of rehearsal hours available.

That new work is starting life with a massive handicap, and may actually sound better, if not completely different, at the 10th performance — that is if there are repeat performances.

Rather than perform it only once, the performer’s ensemble decided to place the new piece in their main concert programming and she admitted that they have discovered all sorts of interpretive nuances along the way.

The composer chimed in that he had heard a performance recently, and the ensemble had done things with the music that he could not even have imagined — and he said that with a tone of joyful admiration.

The lesson here appears simple: It pays to give new works time to develop and grow in repeated live performance.

However, the obstacles are huge: We operate in a culture that, on the new music side, helps composers find work, focusing on new commissions rather than giving pieces the space and time and exposure to grow familiar and evolve; also, mainstream audiences are not naturally open to new music.

But maybe that’s because one factor feeds the other. The loop can be broken in novel ways: Perhaps grants could come with bonus dollars for the musicians if they program a work regularly over a season or two. Perhaps there could be a a person working for the provincial and municipal arts councils whose job would be to get people in other parts of Canada and other parts of the world interested in co-commissions or co-premieres.

In terms of engaging audiences, it helps a great deal that it’s okay again to write works built on musical narrative, not just a conceptual foundation.

Here is an example from Toronto’s Norbert Palej (not the composer I was speaking to earlier this week), of a work that contains all sorts of interpretive possibilities that could, in the hands of a committed artist, grow into an audience favourite.

The pianist is Darren Creech, in his graduation recital at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo last May. The piece is Seven River-Views — I. The Vistula at Night: Reflections; II. The White Fog and a Red Sun; III. A Dragonfly’s Serenade to the Moon; IV. Amongst Rocks; V. Game of Light and Shadow on the Water Surface; VI. Bright Waves; VII. After the Rainfall — so old-fashionedly programmatic, yet sounding remarkably fresh and enticing:

[UPDATE: Darren creech wrote to me after I posted his video, saying that: “I had the opportunity to revisit and perform it again this past November at the ROM in a recital of Norbert’s music. It was a treat to explore the work a second time, and then perform with a more developed and nuanced understanding of the piece. I look forward to continuing to explore and perform the work throughout my career. “]

John Terauds

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