Thursday, 7 February 2013

Getting it Right 2013 - conference report (part 1)

Guildhall ResearchWorks' Getting it Right 2013: the contemporary composer and the orchestra was a conference organised by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the LSO which looked at the relationship between contemporary composers and the orchestra. Taking place on Wednesday 6 February at LSO St. Lukes, the participants included a number of distinguished composers and orchestra managers led by Julian Anderson, professor of composition at the Guildhall School. Composers Mark Antony Turnage, Colin Matthew, Judith Weir, Paul Newland, Julian Anderson, Julian Philips, Helen Grime, Matthew Kaner, Richard Causton, Kate Romano, Hans Abrahamson and George Benjamin came together with managers and administrators,  Kathryn McDowell, Paul Hughes, Stephen Maddock, Andrew Kurowski and Helen Gaunt, along with violinist David Alberman to talk about what does, and doesn't work in the modern relationship between composer and orchestra. Their was also a Skype video link-up with Gunther Schuller, now 87 he is an important figure in the creation and dissemination of contemporary music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The first session was a discussion between Kathryn McDowell (managing director of the LSO) and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. The discussion touched on two main areas, Turnage's experience as composer in residence with the CBSO, which was one of the first appointments of its kind, and his more recent experiences notably the performances of two of his works this week by the LSO including a new commission for a substantial, 40 minute work to be premiered on Thursday 7 February.

Turnage talked about how, at 23, he had a bad experience dealing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and that his residency at the CBSO (from 1990 to 1994) taught him important lessons about dealing with so many players in rehearsal; lessons that he had not learned at college. He was firm in his belief that residencies of this kind should run for three or four years and the two years was too short. The advantage of such schemes included the possibility of workshops on music before performances. This issue of workshops was one which was to crop up repeatedly throughout the day, with different composers having different views as to their value and how to use them.

Kathryn McDowell agreed that having a workshop on a piece six weeks before the performance was an ideal circumstance, but Turnage pointed out that the composer had to work in a certain way, to work fast and want to do revisions, to take full advantage of this. 

The discussion then moved towards Turnage's pieces being performed this week, with the composer talking about how he writes for solo instruments and how different it is to approach a 40 minute work on commission than a shorter one.

Turnage's view of residencies in general was very positive, he pointed out that even today, post-graduates have little experience of working with orchestras and that a residency with the possibility of workshops gives the composer the confidence to take risks.

Julian Anderson's keynote speech started out by examining what the orchestra was and looking at composers attitudes to it. He pointed out that though Louis Andriessen and the Hague School had said that they would not write for orchestras or for those who came to listen to them, often their works were of such a size that only an orchestra could mount the performance. Only someone like LaMonte Young, who only ever writes very small scale piece, could control exactly how their music was performed and by whom. This sort of control was also a feature of John Cage's 30 pieces for 5 orchestras  (1981) where in the forward Cage states that the piece needs 30 hours of rehearsal time.

Anderson then played a number of audio examples which made us think about what an orchestra really is, with music by Cardew, Xenakis and Radulescu which though not written for orchestra was written for ensembles of such a size that only an orchestra could reasonably hope to mount the works. 

Having made us think about what an orchestra was, Anderson then turned his attention to repertoire. Looking at the just the last 25 years he identified quite a few works which ought to be played but were not. He played audio examples of music by David Lumsdaine, James Dillon, Wagenaar and Panufnik, also mentioning Nicholas Maw's Scenes and Arias, all music which ought to be played, ought to be part of the repertoire but isn't. We should be cherishing our recent past, attempts to implant such pieces have not worked yet and this isn't a problem confined to the UK. He talked about the work of Helmut Lachenmann whose music is often confined to German radio orchestras, but whose workshops where he demonstrates his extended violin techniques have clearly shown that musicians can be brought round to performing his music.

Anderson then concluded with an example of his own experiences (very positive) writing his piece Fantasias for the Cleveland Orchestra, a large scale piece which extended his technique and in which he tried to encompass the social aspects of writing for an orchestra, ie a large group of people. He mentioned Elias Canetti's book Crowds and Power which looks at the social implications of large numbers and how they can be manipulated. Canetti evidently includes a short chapter on conductors and how they manipulate both orchestra and audience and clearly enjoy it.

The morning sessions ended with a panel discussion between Paul Hughes (general manager of the BBC), Stephen Maddock (general manager of CBSO) and composers Julian Philips, Julian Anderson, Helen Grimes, Colin Matthews, Matthew Kaner and Paul Newland about composer residencies. There was much positive talk about residences and how composers can get to know the orchestra and the players, writing music tailored to them. Also there was discussion about the differences between residences and the looser composer in association. 

The CBSO was one of the first to do composer residencies and they had a number, the players attitude to contemporary music helped by the fact that a core group also played in the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. But for the last five years they have not done so and instead have commissioned 18 different composers, but residency has affected the way the orchestra deals with contemporary composers and they now try an ensure sufficient rehearsal time, early dialogue with the composers, direct contact between composer and players and an attitude of collaboration between composer and players.

For Paul Hughes at the BBC, their engagement with composers was increasingly about repeat visits as they develop relationships with composers that they see on a regular basis. Also the Sound and Music Embedded scheme has benefited orchestras enormously. 

Colin Matthews felt that there had been a real culture shift amongst players attitudes, citing an early experience he had with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra as being one of the most frightening experiences in his life. This is something that composers kept coming back to during the day, the way that many had had early bad experiences with orchestras and that dealing with one was a technique which had to be learned and was not always taught. The change in players attitudes to contemporary music has been helped by the fact that many players in conservatoires nowadays are exposed to a very wide range of music

The composers on the panel talked about their differing attitudes to residencies and what they got out of them, with some using a lot of workshop time, some using none and others using the workshops to give them confidence. All agreed that it was the extra-mural social factors which helped make residencies important. But that workshops were also useful for the players, building up their confidence in playing contemporary music. 

Regarding critics, Colin Matthews commented that the no critic should be allowed to write a review of a new work without attending the dress rehearsal - now there's a thought! He pointed out that there was a huge pressure on the composer to get it right first time, something that does not happen in any other medium. Something which is very scary, but the pressure is often underestimated. That said, the economics of having every new piece workshopped would be impossible.

The role of the conductor was examined, they should be involved but the last thing a composer needs is a musician telling them how to write the music, to make it more comfortable. Colin Matthews commented that the days are long gone of John Pritchard opening a score for the first time at the first rehearsal.

Another area that came up at various times during the day was this issue of musicians looking over the composers' shoulder and that though workshops were important, it was important too for composers to continue to push the envelope (Gunther Schueller was emphatic about this in the afternoon session which I will cover in part 2 of my conference report).

One or two problem areas were identified, one is to do with composers who are over 35 so no longer eligible for being a young composer in association; where do they go. Like conductors, there seems to be pressure to be either 23 or 70. Another area is the one touched on by Julian Anderson, that of repertoire; getting repeat performances. Colin Matthews was very firm about what he called the fossilisation of the repertoire.

This was the end of the morning sessions and we broke for lunch. I will be covering the afternoon sessions in a further report. (see part 2 of the conference report on this blog).
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