Every time we perform a piece we somehow manage to walk the line between performing music that we love and music that we want other people to hear and doing something that scares us a little bit. We take a lot of risks. When a group of people, each completely remarkable on their own, comes together for a specific idea, and if they do it for each other, then you get great music.
—Contemporaneous core member and violinist Finnegan Shanahan
. . . orchestral works that are large-scale – as in more than, let’s say arbitrarily, 30 minutes – are a seeming rarity in the 21st century. It’s due to the commissioning process: very few orchestras are going to take a risk and commission a very large work simply for orchestra. So most purely orchestral commissions, in the U.S. at least, are 5-25 minutes, depending on the type of commission, or you get your bigger chorus-vocal-soloists cantata thing which will ground half or all of your program (and, potentially, get staged as an opera too).
But what might be left out, then, is the opportunity for composers to write the instrumental symphony of our day. Or something like that.
In making his case, “Towards a 21st century orchestral canon,” Robin was fully on target in pointing to Andrew Norman’s “Play.” Thanks to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a risk-taking orchestra committed to new orchestral music, and its supporters, Norman has recently been able to report that, “after long long last, the recording of Play you all helped to fund back in 2013 is finally finished and ready for release!”
As Robin notes, there are very few orchestras willing to take risks on substantial new works. I don’t know about you, but when I hear a commissioned orchestral piece of shorter length, I’m often left feeling that the composer hasn’t had a chance to give full voice to his or her imagination. And worse yet, more often than not, the commissioned piece is performed live a handful of times at best, not recorded, and simply disappears.
There’s an issue allied to the one Robin poses: few established orchestras seem willing to take many risks on new music of any length. Certainly, established orchestras should be encouraged to offer more such opportunities, yet I can’t help but think the opportunities from those quarters will always remain small.
I’m exceedingly grateful for the passionate commitment shown by so many superb musicians who’ve created and sustained small ensembles that commission and perform new works. In addition to savoring any fine new chamber work, I’m often set to dreaming: “what if” this composer were given a chance to compose for a larger orchestral palette? That such opportunities remain rare is frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
If we want to hear more orchestral music from today’s composers—of any length, and certainly larger scale—then we need to offer as much support as we can to the very few orchestras (chamber and full-size) positioned to make this happen. These are the orchestras with a demonstrated commitment to new orchestral music that are nimble enough—and adventurous enough—to take on larger scale new works.
Contemporaneous is one of those very few orchestras. Within its first five years of existence, Contemporaneous has performed a cornucopia of exciting works by today’s composers (including Andrew Norman), has commissioned over forty new works, and has released a fine recording of new works: Stream of Stars, The Music of Dylan Mattingly.
Sustaining an organization the size of Contemporaneous is no easy matter, yet that, to my mind, is where the future of new orchestral music lies. If you care about that future, please help Contemporaneous realize its dreams, and thereby ours. To donate, click here. (Your donation is tax deductible.) To learn more about Contemporaneous, click here.