Premium

The curious case of the ‘invisible’ contemporary composer

Missy Mazzoli, composer of new work at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – though the publicity hides it
Missy Mazzoli, composer of new work at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – though the publicity hides it Credit: Handout

How many risks can an orchestra afford to take, in these straitened times? Should they promote wall-to-wall Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to put bums on seats, or should they do the exciting and noble thing by supporting living composers?

The question has come into sharp focus in the past few days thanks to an angry tweet from one of America’s most celebrated composers. John Adams is outraged about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s decision to omit the name of the composer Missy Mazzoli from the headline publicity to one of its own concerts – even though the concert contained a brand-new piece by Mazzoli, which the orchestra itself had paid for. 

Instead, the headline shouted: “Muti” – meaning the orchestra’s music director Riccardo Muti – “conducts Beethoven 4 & 7”  – meaning Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh symphonies. “So typical – this disgraceful way orchestra management does its best to hide the fact a new work is on a program,” raged Adams. “It’s maddening and insulting… Art museums and dance companies wouldn’t do it, but orchestras are creaky, risk-averse behemoths.”

There is certainly something tragi-comic about an orchestra spending a shed-load of money to commission, rehearse and perform a new piece, while effectively burying it. But before rushing to condemn, it’s worth remembering these “creaky, risk-averse behemoths” actually take risks all the time. Adams has himself benefitted from the risk-taking of –among others – the San Francisco Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, all of which have commissioned pieces from him, and paid handsomely for the privilege. So it’s not a good look for Adams to attack orchestras. 

One has to remember that orchestras exist in an overwhelmingly hostile environment. Here in the UK where organisations such as Arts Council England seem to hate orchestras for being too middle-class or white, when classical music barely registers in schools, and audiences are getting greyer and dwindling, the orchestra has become a rarefied thing.

Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Hulton Archive

Don’t be fooled by the appearance of solidity and permanence of something like the Bournemouth Symphony or the Hallé orchestra – or the New York Philharmonic. Any orchestra is only six months away from insolvency. The situation is acute here, where public funding covers around 30 per cent of an orchestra’s costs, but in the US, where it can be as little as 5 per cent, putting on an orchestral concert is in effect an act of insane idealistic madness.

That is the bottom line of an orchestra’s existence, but this excruciatingly difficult situation is made even worse when a living composer appears on the programme. Normally loyal audiences stay away, in droves.  So you could say that in keeping Mazzoli’s name out of the headline publicity, the Chicago SO was actually doing her a kindness. By encouraging patrons to come along for Beethoven, they were ensuring a bigger audience for her premiere than if they had actually advertised it.

However, we can’t let the Chicago SO off the hook. There is a line to be drawn between a shrewd marketing ploy and downright cynicism and not mentioning the name of a composer the orchestra actually commissioned surely crosses that line. It arouses the suspicion the orchestra only gets involved in contemporary music as a way of pulling in a sponsor, or burnishing its credentials in the eyes of cultural pundits.

In the case of the Chicago Symphony, that suspicion seems all too plausible. It’s led by an old-style maestro, Riccardo Muti, whose interest in new music is close to zero, if his previous career is anything to go by.  It’s a sad decline from the days when Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim brought real passion and curiosity to the orchestra.  

Indeed, it’s the leader who is crucial to combating this crisis, and there have been great conductor-orchestra partnerships which prove that, when a gifted and charismatic conductor who really believes in new music takes the helm, audiences can be won over.

In San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas put on entire weekends of American radical composers, to packed houses. Simon Rattle, during his 18-year stint at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, persuaded his audiences to follow him into modernist adventures they would never have braved before. His successor in Birmingham, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, is following in his footsteps, as is Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic.

Audiences are inspired by belief, and when it’s lacking, cynicism rushes in to fill the void – as the story of Chicago’s “invisible premiere” eloquently proves.