"New Music for a Hesitant Audience"/ Composers' Corner Volume XVII

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February, 2018

with Brett Abigaña

"New Music for a Hesitant Audience"
One of the most common problems facing any conductor interested in programming new music is that of the audience. While admittedly, audiences attending a high school band concert might be more forgiving if their child is onstage, music teachers are still often faced with suspicious parents asking why they had to play "that new stuff." At a certain point, wouldn't it be nice to not have to justify the performance of a new piece after the fact? What if you could have an audience excited to hear the new piece and ready to give it the benefit of the doubt up front? Trust me, it's possible!

One of the best things you can do to make this happen is to connect the composer to your audience. If you've been reading "Composers' Corner" for the past two years, you've heard this many times! If you're working with a composer, it helps immensely to get them in front if your audience, even if only for an introduction to the piece. This can be done in person (which is certainly the best way to do it!), but could also be done via Skype or even a recorded message. In short, if your audience has a face to put with the name, and if the piece's meaning is clearly presented to them by its creator, they're usually willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. And if you can get the composer in the room with them, even better! Composers are often quite willing (even excited) to offer a pre-concert talk of some sort to get to know the audience, explain a bit about their work and the piece in question, and to take questions about what the audience is about to hear. You can even invite the audience to stick around after the concert for a "Meet the Composer" reception. I've found that after premieres of new pieces, there's no shortage of audience members eager to tell me everything they loved (or hated) about the piece they just heard. It can sometimes require a thick-skinned composer, but the results are well worth it.

But of course, these are things that can work towards short-term acceptance of a single piece. What about a long-term plan for new music in general? Here's where getting your kids come in. I've found that in my program at Boston University Academy (where I've been Music Director for 10 years), I can reach my audience by talking to my students. Before exploring an unfamiliar type of music in rehearsal, I'll give them a lecture about the composer, the genesis of their aesthetic, their historical significance, etc. One or two class periods tend to do the trick. I'll do this for any composer from Gesualdo to Babbitt, and I regularly hear from parents that my kids go home and tell them all about the music and the person who wrote it. Now of course, some facts, dates, or anecdotes will get lost or distorted in translation. But to have a parent learn about Arnold Schoenberg from their child and then come to a concert of Pierrot Lunaire informed and curious is well worth the work! Let's be honest, if you have high school aged children yourself, wouldn't you be thrilled to have them explain to you over dinner whatever it is they learned today in class? Of course you would! If you can try this with a living composer's work, then bring that composer to the concert to speak with your audience, the effect is multiplied. Now here's the kicker: assuming this plan to be successful, program that composer's music again. And again. And maybe again. If you can establish a professional relationship with the composer so that they would like to continue writing for your group, even better! This gives the composer a chance to get to know your audience and their tastes, which can also ensure that you continue to get music you can be very comfortable programming. More importantly, you'll have graduating seniors telling freshmen all about "their composer" and their music, and your audience will look forward to whatever they come up with next. Once this pattern is established, it's easy enough to say, "Well, if you like [Composer X], check out this new piece by [Composer Y]. They studied with the same person!" And just like that, the dinner-time conversation has changed and expanded.

These are two ways I've found to get your audience excited about new, unfamiliar pieces, composers, and aesthetics. But I'd love to hear how YOU have done it! Share your techniques with us at brett-abigana@world-projects.com or by adding comments on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds. We want to hear from you!
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