Tuesday, 15 May 2012

So you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra....

Part One:  Rules of Engagement.

After years of experience with orchestras across the country, and after many questions and comments and complaints from composers, I thought it might be useful to post some observations, advice, and suggestions on the complexities of dealing with orchestras.

The orchestral environment is a complicated one.  Many composers do not feel the need to have anything to do with orchestras.  Many others, after their first experience with an orchestra, decide not to go back into the environment.

The situation is a little awkward, because, as professionals, we need major exposure, and nothing except opera gives more high profile exposure than orchestral music.  Even a composer like John Tavener, known almost totally for his vocal music, had to have an orchestral success with "The Protecting Veil" before he became internationally known.  And it was, I believe, the only purely orchestral work he had written at the time.  But this is about career, not art.  The two are undeniably linked:  to be the best artist you can be, you need to be free to undertake the projects you are passionate about.  To be in this position, you need to build a substantial career.  But unless you really need the orchestra, it might make sense to look elsewhere to fulfill your artistic vision.

The lesson is simple:  the orchestra world has an internal life of its own.  If you don't like it, don't engage it.  I always cite the example of Ligeti.  After the first several orchestral masterpieces, he more or less completely turned his back on the orchestra, preferring at most a chamber orchestra for the violin and piano concertos and the final Hamburg Concerto.  Here was a composer who could have picked up the phone and called any orchestra in the world and told them he wanted to compose a new work for them.  Any orchestra would have moved heaven and earth to get a new work from Ligeti.  But he seemed to have no use for the ensemble any more.

If you have decided to pursue orchestral composition, there are a few basic "rules" to keep in mind when starting out.

Basic rule 1:  you will never succeed in bending an orchestra to your will.  Do not imagine even for a minute that you can "demand" anything from a professional orchestra.  Orchestras are living organisms, with complex internal structures which are generally invisible from the outside.  The dynamics which guide activities are opaque.  It is safe to assume that the Music Director is in charge of everything musical, but even the MD has to make adjustments.  All artistic organizations depend on the synergy of the artistic director and the administrative director.  They exist in a symbiosis:  the MD envisions artistic projects, and the General Manager (or equivalent) figures out how to implement them.  Not all things are always possible.

Basic rule 2:  you will have to earn the trust of the orchestra, from the MD, through the players, and into the administration, to arrive at a point where you have the artistic freedom to do whatever you want.  No orchestra is going to commit to a massively complex (and therefore expensive) project with a composer they don't know.  The history of every composer I can name with orchestras has evolved over time.  I myself wrote my first work for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of their now-gone Evening Overtures series, a pre-concert series devoted to chamber music.  Then I was commissioned for a short work for a young peoples' concert.  Then I was asked for a longer work for a casual concert.  Gradually, I gained their trust, and when the time came for my Second Symphony, I asked for and received a full 2 1/2 hour rehearsal to workshop the piece.  You have to work your way up to that grand opus.

Side rule:  have a calling card piece.  Don't send your 45 multi-media masterpiece to an orchestra who have never programmed your work and expect them to fall all over themselves to do it.  They might-- lightning does strike from time to time.  But it's not likely.  Send a short work, 4 to 10 minutes long, ideally with a good recording,  If it works as an opener, even better.  You would be astonished to find out how much effort orchestras put into finding decent openers.

Basic rule 3:  conductors, conductors, conductors.  No orchestra imposes repertoire on a conductor.  They may ask a conductor to programme a work, but the conductor can always refuse.  Music Directors are in a slightly more complicated situation, but even they can ask a visiting conductor to undertake it instead.  By far the most direct way to get a work programmed is to engage a conductor.  If you went to school with someone who goes on to conduct, you have a good connection.   These types of connections build careers.

Basic rule 4:  soloists are problematic.  Every orchestra will hire soloists based on the expectations of their audience.  Your uncle Otis might be a great bassoonist, but he is never going to be a soloist with the Montreal Symphony.  Don't pitch a concerto with him to a major orchestra.  And if you do manage to interest a high profile soloist in your work, don't do the old get-me-the-gig-and-I'll-play-your-piece routine.  If you tell the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that Superstar X wants to perform your violin concerto with them, the first thing they will do is speak to Mr. X's management and ask a) if this is true and b) would he rather play your concerto or the Mendelssohn.  Remember, big name soloists cost money, which means the orchestra has to sell tickets.  Your concerto with a major soloist might sell on the basis of the soloist, but standard rep will sell more, and the orchestra needs to recoup the costs.  And believe me when I say that a major soloist playing a new work will cause many, many letters of complaint and threats about canceling subscriptions.

Basic rule 5:  patience.  As a composer myself, and after years of dealing with composers and teaching, I can tell you that composers are not very bright.  We are blinded by ego.  We truly believe the music world needs us desperately and that we are right about everything.  Anything perceived as a rejection can set us off on tirades, letter-writing, name-calling, and a lot of other unhealthy things.  Believe me when I say that no orchestra in this country is aggressively excluding your work from their programming.  Canadian orchestras need Canadian repertoire.  They look for it constantly.  But it must serve their programming needs.  (See "Basic rule 2" above.)  In my situation at the TSO, I have had scores submitted which I considered very interesting, which I took to the MD, but which simply couldn't work in the programming plans at the time.  In several cases, these works continue to sit on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity, which may or may not come.  But at least the MD is aware of them.  Do not start writing letters of complaint.  Do not tell interviewers and conference attenders that orchestras are not really interested in new work.  Do not attack orchestras' commission applications on juries.  The dynamics behind the scenes are far, far more complex than you can imagine.

More in Part Two.

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