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The importance of commissioning music

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–In the 18th and 19th Centuries, people attended music concerts expecting to hear a few old favorites, and at the same time, to sample newly composed music. Many of the most celebrated concerts in history featured nothing but new music.

Somehow, starting in the Twentieth Century, we have lost our way. Concertgoers attend programs with the sole purpose of basking themselves by hearing the classics from the past which they know and love. Call it “comfort music”, much like bread is comfort food. But nutritionists will tell you, man can not live by bread alone.

Possibly the strident sounds of modernity in the serial and atonal music which started in the early 1900’s created a strong resistance to anything which hinted of new music, or contemporary, or music of our times, to say nothing of Avant Garde and other scary implications.

It all comes down to this: Concert halls are becoming museums, and not shrines which showcase a living art form. No wonder that we are suffering from shrinking, graying audiences for classical music. Our beloved concert music has changed from being a vibrant, evolving contribution to the fine arts, to a stagnant homage to glories of the past. In most instances, modern music is not even given a chance, and when it is played, it is rarely heard after the premiere performances.

A couple of decades ago, I gave a pre-concert lecture to a San Diego Symphony evening. There was Schumann in the first half, and Bartók’s monumental Concerto for Orchestra in the second. The latter work is one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of all time, and many a serious musician has called Bartók the finest composer of the Twentieth Century. It is hard to describe my despair in watching hundreds of people rushing to the exits of Symphony Hall at intermission. The music was not even given a chance to be heard.

The late Karl Haas told me years ago that he received many letters from listeners to his immensely popular radio program Adventures in Good Music. Many of these letters unequivocally let Mr. Haas know that “the moment that you announce that you are going to play music from the Twentieth Century, I turn off the radio before listening to a single note”. Reality can be most unfair.

Serious music is well on its way to extinction. If we want classical music to survive,  the above must change.

But, on the other hand, I must admit, that even for me, a blindly loyal supporter and performer of classical music, the idea of attending a live concert which features nothing more than the same tired warhorses, becomes a silly ritual of sameness and redundancy; this is in spite of who the performers are, and of the prospects of a real, novel rendition of the familiar music.

Where do we go from here?

As I see it, the first obvious step is to encourage, promote, and commission living composers to create new works. But keeping in mind the already built-in  resistance to new music, it is most important to guide composers to create works which will not repel the first-time listeners like the plague, while at the same time, not compromise the composer’s creative spirit. Such a happy medium is quite possible, without pandering to popular tastes, using clichés and lowering the standards of high art.

Composers have to understand the concept that pleasing the audiences is part of their job. If more composers take the attitude of Aaron Copland, who said if the public did not like some of his more “difficult works”, it was of no concern to him, people will eventually stop attending concerts and record companies will no longer issue any albums except those with the “greatest hits”. It is happening already, and we may have to close shop in a few decades in the future.

To this end, during the last 30 years, I have commissioned, or been involved in the creation of new, serious music which is accessible to the general public. And, yes, some of these works really sound “modern”, yet, when properly presented, can generate enthusiasm from the audiences.

These works have been successfully performed by my community orchestra, and some compositions have eventually been commercially recorded in Europe with world famous orchestras for worldwide distribution. And they have received quite favorable critical acclaim. There were many instances when I have faced the great orchestras of London, Scotland, Israel, Moscow, and Central Europe, where their musicians, many of them quite jaded from decades of dealing with parades of soloists, conductors, old and new music, have come up to me to express their enthusiasm and gratitude for bringing them music they had never heard, and were most pleased to know and play.

 Case in point: Last week we premiered a Holocaust piece for narrator and orchestra by Arnold Rosner, From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow, which illustrates through words and music the tragic events of the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940’s. People in the audience have reported to me that “there was not a dry eye in the house”.

A partial list of composers which I have involved with such projects includes Paul Creston, David Ward-Steinman, Arnold Rosner, Tzvi Avni, and Paul Turok. For the Millennium year, we commissioned five different works, some great, and some not so great. More recently, we commissioned and premiered Harvey Cohen’s Columbia Suite, in memory of the fallen astronauts, Tim Simonec’s Anne Frank, The Story, and Laurence Rosenthal’s Prophetic Voices, a Double Concerto for Solo Violin, Percussion, and Orchestra. We also premiered a commission to Valarie Morris, Voices of Shekhinah, a large work for four female voices and orchestra, celebrating Jewish women in history and the present.

I have thoroughly enjoyed conducting and recording for posterity lesser known music by famous composers such as Alan Hovhaness, Morton Gould, Gian Carlo Menotti, Norman Dello Joio, Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, Vincent Persichetti, Walter Piston, Henry Cowell, Isidor Achron, Ernest Bloch, and many other worthy masters.

But, keep in mind: I do not like most modern music I hear; just because “it sounds modern”, it may have incomprehensible rhythms and token dissonances, simple cheap effects that will not please me. But I will always give new music a chance and welcome its performance. Once in a while, I am surprised and pleased. What music needs to do is to create an emotional response from its listeners, preferably a good one. But this is the chance we take. Call it the happiness of pursuit.

The more music we hear, traditional and new, the more discriminating we become, in a good way, and can differentiate the wheat from the chaff. This evolving process must continue in the concert halls and in recordings.

Let us not forget that the classics we revere from the past are the results of natural selection, the survival of the fittest. During the times of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and our many other musical heroes, there were hundreds, if not thousands of other composers and compositions which are not heard today. What we do hear is the best that has survived, with a few exceptional worthy discoveries here and there, which have become part of the repertory.

Obviously, not all music of today will survive, or deserves to heard again. But for this process to continue, we must all do our part. That, is, to commission composers, have the works performed and recorded, and most importantly, to listen to them with an optimistic ear. Let history be the judge, and let us be the immediate beneficiaries.

Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

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  1. June 3, 2011 at 3:02 am

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