What should we be performing?
Classical music today and the place of youth orchestras
Often in today’s world of classical music programming, one is faced with an immediate dilemma, should orchestras mostly be playing music that has long been embedded in the canon of western tradition, or should musicians embrace more closely the products of our time, in other words, the music being written by our composers or that written by the composers of yesteryear. The answer found by most orchestras is a fairly even-handed one, why not do both? As a result, one can often see side-by-side established works of the western canon alongside modern pieces being performed in concert, and all is seemingly well.
Music of the ages is performed not least as an appreciation of beauty, but as almost an act of remembrance, of history, so that we bring to life the art of those long departed from our world, sometimes so we may better understand them, and in others to create new art from what has already been written in a way that the composers of yesteryear did not envision. We perform the work of Monteverdi, Haydn, Berlioz and Borodin so they are not forgotten, and our modern artists interpret the intentions these composers put to paper in new ways, to revive their long-gone world and put a new spin upon it. In this sense, classical music, even in its practical respects, is a historical discipline, not only an artistic one: when there are works that have been forgotten by the rolling passage of time, musicians hold the power to revive them, as we have seen with the works of Clarke, Farrenc and Price in recent years. That ability to spring forgotten works back to life, or bring new life to well-established repertoire, in the interests of preservation, should be used generously: musicians should not pick and choose their history at whim, but seek to present the musical heritage of all cultures in their full glory, not of course by performing every single little scrap of manuscript ever written, but by performing music that accurately represents their time.
In this light of history, thus appears another reason to perform modern music. We do so in order that today’s composers, arrangers and orchestrators may be given a platform on which to be heard and to learn from, but also that onlookers and musicians from the future may be able to look upon our art in the same way as we are able to with the music of the 20th century. We perform music written today so that we may enable the musicians of the future to choose examples that they feel represent our current day and age. If musicians of the early 21st century focus so narrowly on only performing music that appears ‘best’ and ‘highest-quality’ to us now, we rob future generations of their ability to decide that for themselves. As such, musicians of today should seek out music written by our contemporaries where possible, to provide a library from which the historians and artists of the future may select what they feel represents our current epoch most aptly. While of course it is not possible, as with the music of the past, to perform every single piece of music written by our contemporaries (economics have not been kind to classical music, to say the least about practicalities), musicians should seek to present as much of the modern world of the somewhat paradoxical paradigm of ‘contemporary classical music’ as is reasonably possible.
(A little more than) a few words about youth orchestras…
With this consideration of music as a historical discipline, we open up a slightly thornier playing field, that of the pedagogical uses of music of both the current and the past. With music of the past that has been suppressed or forgotten, the use is clear, widening the breadth of music to which we as young artists are exposed to in a period in which we have the time and capability to stop and think carefully about the music that we perform. With the music of the current, following the logic, the use of performing such works is clear insofar as the idea of breadth is concerned. Performing modern music with youth orchestras exposes young musicians to the world they are likely to enter (with all the positives and negatives of it), and deepens our understanding of the music being written around us. We as young musicians form our own opinions about the music we are asked to play, and that in itself could be seen as a pedagogically worthwhile experience. If there is music that we had previously known little about and had dismissed, the act of rehearsing and performing the music does wonders for the players’ understanding of such music (even if they are not particularly in favour of it), which, in the case of youth orchestras, is very much the point.
If anyone still reading knows me in person and has guessed why I have written this, I would just like to point out that the Tabla Concerto (which doesn’t cleanly fit into any of the implied epithets in this article) was an incredibly useful and educational experience, even if the orchestral parts were not as enthralling as the Rite. I only realised there were people who considered it ‘10th-rate’ after reading some reviews as well as popular commentary after the radio broadcast. While on-residency, I was given the firm impression that the vast majority of the orchestra vastly enjoyed it and felt it was valuable.