Friday 8 February 2013

Getting it Right 2013 - conference report (part 2)

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. This is the second part of my conference report,  covering the afternoon sessions with panel discussions and presentations including composers Gunther Schuller, George Benjamin, Hans Abrahamsen, Julian Philips, Helen Grimes and Richard Causton. The first part can be found in an earlier posting on this blog. 

The afternoon session started with three shorter presentations from composers who had had rather varied experiences of interacting with orchestras. Each composer presented not only a summary of the process but gave details of the works involved, complete with audio samples and projected visuals of the scores (though these were barely readable but gave a rough idea of the score).

Julian Philips had a salutary experience with his BBC Proms commission Out of Light in 2001, where he was presented with the commission but there was little or no creative dialogue nor discussion with the conductor. The work was perhaps more demanding than expected, and was placed in a long and demanding programme. Only by pressing, did he get feedback. It was only when the work was performed at Tanglewood in 2004, that he had was encouraged to revisit, re-shape and rescore the work. Later experiences have shown Philips that dialogue with the conductor and the commissioner is both possible and necessary.

By contrast Richard Causton had a very happy experience with his recent work Twenty Seven Heavens which was commissioned for the EU Youth Orchestra as part of the PRS Foundation for Music's 20x12 project last year. The title refers to the work of William Blake, but co-incidentally 27 is the number of nations represented in the EU Youth Orchestra. Causton had four try-out sessions with the orchestra and as a result the piece changed dramaturgically very late on, including some re-scoring between workshop and final performance. As Causton was interested in writing more complex music using simpler structures on the page, he found working with the orchestra very valuable. The youth orchestra was fantastically positive and everyone worked very hard.

Helen Grime's Virga was commissioned as part of the LSO/UBS Sound Pioneer scheme, she wrote it in 2006 and premiered it in 2007. She has benefited from workshops from a young age via ECAT (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust) and was able to hear everything she wrote. When she started at the Royal College of Music in 1999 workshops had already become part of the culture. Her early workshops there were helpful for her to learn what she did and did not want to write.

Virga, as her first piece for orchestra, was daunting and the fact that there were workshops was reassuring. But much of her music was difficult and intricate and players in the workshops had not seen it before, so there was a need to see through the actual workshop performance, otherwise you could easily lose confidence in the music. And for Grimes, hearing a piece for the first time was an intense process, she found it difficult to be objective and could be disappointed. In fact her piece has been performed a number of time, with some very different interpretations.

The next session was essentially a Skype interview with Gunther Schuller from the New England Conservatory. Schuller, now aged 87, has been involved in contemporary music as a performer, conductor and composer. There was a panel in London, Colin Matthews, David Alberman, Judith Weir and Julian Anderson whose role wasn't so much to have a panel discussion as to feed questions to Schuller. There were problems with the link-up, but in fact it went remarkably well and Schuller's views were fascinating.

After the war he started out as a horn player, playing in Cincinatti, in the New York Phiharmonic and at the Metropolitan Opera. The attitude to contemporary music varied, playing under Eugene Goossens at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had been a very positive experience, whereas at the Metropolitan Opera there were players who were vociferous about not doing modern music. This was true also at the NY Philharmonic, but under the charismatic Dimitri Mitropoulos things changed there.

Technically the orchestral playing was not what it was today, in Philadelphia under Ormandy the trombones could not play quintuplets and he quoted an orchestra as having a strain playing Brahms Fourth Symphony with not all the rhythms being correct. Schuller's view was that though nowadays things had evolved technically, there was a tendency to play the notes without understanding them. This was something that he came to back to repeatedly.

In his view one of the best regimes for contemporary music was the first three years that James Levine did in Boston (Levine was musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from the 2004-2005 season), by the 2nd year Levine was turning out immaculate performances of contemporary pieces and the orchestra became enthusiastic about it, feeling that their performances of older works improved too. But this was a unique experiment, no-one else did anything similar.

The discussion turned to conducting contemporary music. Schuller felt that there will always be musicians who will never like contemporary music. For him, everything in making music is feeling, not just notes, and that it was mainly the lack of rehearsal time that was a problem. He again returned to the problems of pieces being note perfect but lacking in understanding or feeling, quoting as an example Solti's recordings of Schoenberg's Variations Opus 31.

He pointed out that when a quartet plays the fifth quartet by Milton Babbitt, they spend 17 rehearsals on it but that you can't do this with orchestras. And contemporary music is just not played enough for players to get familiar with it; here he cited the problem of getting second, and subsequent performances. In his view, there was no problem understanding contemporary pieces, but you have to devote time to them.

He quoted as an example Babbitt's Transfigured Notes for string orchestra which was pronounced unplayable by conductors and management, though he felt that the conductors had not prepared themselves for it. So he did the piece at his own, considerable, expense. Though they had limited funds, so could not have all the rehearsals needed, he feels that they got pretty close and it will take a few generations to get further. (As salutary reminders, he pointed out that in 1939 the New York Philharmonic was still not comfortable playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and that when Ludwig Spohr and Carl Maria Von Weber played in the work in the 19th century their view was that Beethoven was insane).

The discussion finished by talking about writing new work. Schuller felt that some composers gave some orchestras an easy time, whereas he felt that a composer should always push the envelope. He pointed out that the greatest composers of all time have always done that. Some things are so path breaking, such a quantum leap, e.g. Wagner and late Debussy, that they take time.

The next session was a discussion, chaired by Richard Causton with two composers George Benjamin and Hans Abrahamsen, talking about writing for the orchestra.

Abrahamsen felt that the orchestra could sound in so many different ways that it was important for the composer to get the sound just right; though for him this was an on-going dream.

Benjamin commented that he loved the orchestra, but that as an ensemble it is so big, the possibilities  gigantic; you have to fight against making a conventional sound. He felt that sometimes texture takes too high a profile on orchestral piece, that melodic material takes second place. Benjamin said that it seemed to him that the contemporary music ensemble with 12 to 25 instruments was better for contemporary thought. Writing for orchestra needed more notes and creative ambition. It is a huge landscape, with the energy that comes when so many people are playing. When well done it is intensely dramatic, nothing quite like it in the world.

Abrahamsen felt that it was more natural to write for groups like the London Sinfonietta. Ligeti said the same thing, but nowadays orchestras are playing Ligeti's music. Abrahamsen  was conscious not to use instruments all the time, to take things away; the most important things are those that are not said.

Benajmin said the in some pieces he also missed out instruments in some pieces, to clarify the texture. But that a when writing for an orchestra, there has to be a tutti. In some Stravinsky works the composer avoids this and Benjamin found it a bit sad. But it was a big challenge, with so many notes and they have to be written precisely even though many will not be heard.

Moving to talking about writing for soloist and orchestra,  both agreed that there is very little in orchestration books about writing for a solo and orchestra. Abrahamsen said that when writing his piano concerto he kept the part simple and was concerned about the question of what is in the fore-ground and what is in the back-ground. Benjamin commented that Mozart was the best concerto writer but that he didn't like the idea of the soloist doing obvious things, and being in the foreground always. But he loved writing for voice and instruments, you have to treat a voice tenderly otherwise you can easily smother it.

Abrahamsen said that he played the horn in orchestras when young, that it was important that the parts are satisfying. He always reads each part through, and imagines what is going on between the notes. Benjamin also said that he looked at individual parts and empathise and quoted examples from the past where individual parts in major works were unsympathetic.

Benjamin said that he had been touched by what Gunther Schuller said about feeling. He added that when music is new, he wondered how much people understood that the presence of the composer could be a help but would also be inhibiting. Music needs breathing, playing, understanding, so composers must let their children go and allow the players make their own relationships.

Abrahamsen said that composers must dare to write new things for this fantastic bodies.

Benjamin ended on quite a fierce note. He said that there were some fantastic young conductors out there, very gifted but so conservative in their choice of music. If Mitropoulos or Koussevitsky liked a new piece they played it repeatedly but this does not happen nowadays, young conductors are too conservative. People are not making a vernacular or a repertoire of contemporary pieces, but there was a lack of daring and lack of imagination.

The final session was a round table one in which the existing panellists were joined by Andrew Kurowski from the BBC. Unfortunately I had to leave early to catch the Joyce DiDonato concert at the Barbican.

This has been rather a long post, but there was a great deal of interest in the sessions. Much of it has had to be reportage of what people where saying and I trust that I have not misrepresenting things to much.

The first part of my conference report can be found in an earlier post on the blog.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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