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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Putting a positive spin on new music

The 2009-2010 Boston Symphony Orchestra season brochure arrived in the mail today.

It is the usual glossy booklet complete with good information about the up-coming season.

A couple of things struck me about it.

First, to attend the entire season of Saturday evening concerts sitting in the best seats will cost you $2,725. Wow!

Second, the number of premieres of new works is less than in previous seasons under Maestro Levine, although there are some good works to watch for. Pieces by Peter Leiberson, John Harbison, Augusta Read Thomas, John Williams, and three works by Elliott Carter figure prominently in the season.

And finally, it's very subtle, but the BSO marketing department seems to downplay new music in their brochure. For example, they avoid adjectives such as edgy, avant garde, cutting-edge, or ground breaking in the descriptions of modern works. Rather, their adjectives are carefully selected to quell apprehension about new music, to pacify and alleviate fear. It's written defensively, with contemporary-music-phobes as their target audience.

Elliott Carter is a "...venerable American composer..."

"Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs the scintillating Dialogues for piano and orchestra by Carter..."

"...Hilary Hahn in Prokofiev's lively Violin Concerto No. 1..."

"Ligeti's early folk-inspired and Bartók-like Concert Românesc..."

"Shostakovich's playful Piano Concerto No. 1"

The brochure is plastered with photos of smiling young soloists - such as Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Grazia Doronzio, and the 21 year-old French pianist Lise del la Salle. Although Elliott Carter is having three works performed throughout the season, the 100-year old composers' mugshot does not appear anywhere. In fact, not a single photo of any of the composers featured this coming season is revealed.

The BSO marketing department seems to believe that faces of composers don't sell tickets, otherwise they would be out front and center. It also seems that of the 21st and 20th century pieces that were selected for performance, the vast majority of them are paired with a prestigious soloist. The idea must be that a customer who harbors a dislike for contemporary or modern music might still buy a ticket if there is a well-known soloist involved.

Compare the BSO with other major American orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic. New York just appointed Magnus Lindberg to a two-year stint as Composer-in-Residence. NY has a long-standing tradition of systematically involving composers in the activities and promotion of their orchestra.

Perhaps I'm just paranoid, but it does seem like contemporary composers, at least in relation to the BSO, are marginalized.