At the risk of adding yet more words on a topic that has been endlessly debated for many years, a topic on which millions of words have already been written, after a solid week of listening to Grammy submissions and voting, I decided to jump into that debate. Listening to hundreds of entries, I came away more impressed than ever by the high quality of the many compositions by living composers that I heard. Music in a wide variety of styles. Some more, some less appealing to me personally, but so, so much excellent music.
In the relatively scant time frame that is available to listen your way through the thousands of submissions, I had to make choices. My choice was to give a listen and my careful consideration to artists who were recording new music, and to entirely skip any album that started with Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, etc. There was simply so much wonderful new music to give my time to, that I couldn’t spend time with a performing artist who somehow believed that the 1,000th or 10,000th recording of some Beethoven piece contributed something of unique worth to the music world. So I kept on scrolling down as they went by on the screen, one after another, wondering all the while what on earth motivated the artists to expend all the time and effort to record and produce that particular album when there’s so much other wonderful new music getting little or scant attention. The only exception to this, was for recordings of unknown or lesser known composers from past centuries, many of whom were as creative and talented as those composers who now dominate the classical mainstream, but for whatever reason, have been forgotten by the world.
Which leads me to the contemporary classical concert scene and those endless debates I started out with. Will new music chase away audiences? Will audiences only attend concerts if music directors slip in new music, almost as if to disguise its presence on the program, in a program filled with the usual limited list of ever repeated standards? I well appreciate that I don’t represent the typical concert goer, but for sure, nothing will keep me away from a concert hall like an orchestra serving up another dish of Beethoven’s 5th or a pianist playing Chopin ballades. I’ve heard them so many times before and nothing those performers can do is likely to bring something new to that experience that would be worth my time or my money to go hear. But, a concert of great new music? Yes, I’m there.
Of course, others have and will argue that audiences HATE new music. Well, perhaps that’s less a commentary on new music than on the the music directors who create the programs, and, because of their own disinterest in contemporary music, don’t know the literature well enough to select wonderful, inspiring pieces to program. There’s certainly so much of that out there it’s hardly the fault of composers that music directors select music their audiences find boring, or worse, ugly. No one wants to go to a concert hall to hear ugly sounds. We can hear that while driving in traffic on the way to the theater. But there is so much gorgeous new music out there, it only takes the interest, desire and knowledge of the music of today to plan programs that audiences will rave about. That should be the standard fare – and if performers want to slip in the occasional warhorse, we can all slip out for an early intermission and return later for the main event, excited about being the first to hear something wonderful and new.