The Value of “Not-Quite-New” Music

With Opening Night approaching, we invited two members of the club2030 council to look ahead to the coming season and answer some of the questions new audience members might have. Today, Eric Prindle explores how ensembles like the SPCO support the establishment of new repertoire.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has long been known for its commitment to new music, and the 2014-15 season carries this tradition forward with world premieres of pieces by Nicola Campogrande, Charles Wuorinen and Fred Lerdahl. But looking beyond the premieres, what is even more impressive is the number of pieces on the SPCO’s calendar that are neither brand-new nor established members of the canon.

After all, there’s prestige to be had from premiering new works, and most orchestras do it from time to time. But after a weekend of performances, a couple reviews, and maybe a recording, many of those works are never heard again live, especially in the U.S. And that’s a shame, because for new music to stick, it needs to be played more than once.

Ultimately, 200 years from now, the vast majority of music written in 2014 will essentially be forgotten. That’s not a knock against the music of today. It’s just the inevitable outcome of many years of listeners deciding which pieces are worth keeping around and which can safely be left behind as relics of their time. It’s just like how, today, the vast majority of music written in 1814 has been forgotten. But then, on the other hand, there’s Beethoven’s Fidelio.

This process of weeding out the merely adequate pieces and admitting the truly great ones into the canon takes time, and only once in a rare while is it possible to make any real judgment about a piece’s greatness after its premiere. Even when a new work is recorded and can be listened to over and over, that’s just one performance, and it will never say everything there is to say about the piece.

That’s where ensembles like the SPCO come in. By giving its audience the opportunity to hear new renditions of 21st century pieces whose premieres have come and gone — pieces like Tigran Mansurian’s violin concerto Four Serious Songs, Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, John Casken’s double concerto That Subtle Knot, and many more — the SPCO is playing a vital curatorial role in helping us decide whether those pieces will still be played and listened to generations from now.

These particular works may or may not make the cut. But by listening and responding to them, you get to help decide, and that’s a pretty great opportunity. So even if you think you only like the old stuff, take this challenge: Attend a concert where something new or newish is being performed, listen to the piece, have an opinion, and express it. You’ll be playing a small but important part in the process of figuring out which pieces from today deserve to be remembered long after we’re all gone.