Monday, October 10, 2011

The Lost Art of Music Composition

imageI’m a big fan of our symphony orchestras including works by contemporary composers in their programs, in particular works by contemporary Australian composers.  We’ve heard plenty of good modern material as a result, such as Sculthorpe’s Sun Music III a few weeks ago, Edwards’ Veni, Creator Spiritus and Vine’s Microsymphony, to name a few.

However, one thing all these pieces have in common has been their brevity. Ten or twelve minutes generally sees them out, which seems to work for most people.

Brett Dean, whose four movement violin concerto “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” was played by the ASO at its French Beauty concert on 7 and 8 October, took us on a somewhat different tack.  A mere 38 minutes worth, and I have to admit I was struggling a bit after about 3 minutes.  The thing raised a few issues in my mind:

  1. Dean wrote the piece in 2006, but (aside from the ACO*) none of the major symphony orchestras played it until this year, when three (count ‘em, three! - ASO, MSO, SSO) have scheduled it.  I assume this was because the piece won a  major prize for composition in 2009, at which point everyone decided they ought to schedule it.
  2. The soloist (Sophie Rowell) did an excellent job with the piece.  In some ways the nature of the music made it easy to really appreciate her efforts, in other ways it made it difficult to keep concentrating on what she was doing.
  3. I would have thought that with any solo violinist the program really ought to have a few lines on the violin he or she is playing.  In this case I assume Rowell was playing the Guadagnini which was purchased (with considerable foresight) in 1955 for 1750 pounds by the SA Guadagnini Trust.
  4. I wonder what the reason was for the long pregnant pause between the orchestra tuning up and Rowell and Volmer walking on stage to start the Dean piece.  I have a mental picture of Rowell being dragged kicking and screaming onto the stage…and who could blame her!


“Anonymous” has questioned the premise that the ACO has played this piece at all, falling in to the trap of supposing that the ACO refers to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, as opposed to the Ardrossan Community Orchestra, which premiered this piece years ago.  Actually that’s a lie (although it remains a possibility!) and I’m not quite sure why I thought the ACO has played this – probably because it’s just the sort of piece they ought to play, or the sort of piece they would play.  See the comments for further observations about the timing of the multiple instances of this piece now appearing in various programs.


Anonymous said...

I would be curious to learn more about the supposed ACO performance of the violin concerto. The Australian premiere of the work was given by the ANAM orchestra with Caetani conducting and Kristian Winther as soloist. That was in November 2009, also after the announcement of the Grawemeyer (and the world premiere in 2007).

It's possible that the MSO and SSO performances were contingent on the availability of the dedicatee to play the solo. Which is not to say the programming wasn't also a reaction to the award announcement in 2008 as you suggest, but it would certainly explain the coincidence.

But there's another factor to consider: It would be nice if symphony orchestras worldwide could be a bit more spritely in picking up new works and introducing them to their local audiences. However, the reality of hearing or hearing reports from a premiere in 2007 and then putting into motion the actual programming (including securing sympathetic conductor and soloist) resulting in a performance four seasons later, is probably more typical than not. No doubt ANAM was able to jump the gun on the Australian premiere given its greater flexibility of commitments (and the Dean connection, of course).

I find it interesting that there are six different sets of performances (not all with FPZ) scheduled between now and the end of the year. And there have been three earlier in 2011. But there was basically a huge gap between a slew of performances in 2007 and this year. That points to the lead time in orchestral programming nowadays just as much as the Grawemeyer win.

The Weatherman said...

Not sure what I was thinking of re the ACO! Post has been updated. Thanks also for your comments about the timing of this piece's appearance on various programs this year. You might be right about some of the constraints on performing it earlier - I hope that's right, and that its not a cultural cringe-worthy case of waiting for a foreign judging panel to tell us what's worth playing.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I'd claim Lost Art as a piece the ACO should or would play. Orchestral requirements: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, celeste, prepared piano, strings. Even with ACO2 to hand that would be a lot of extra musicians.
[Same Anonymous as before]

The Weatherman said...

OK, I bow down to your encyclopedic knowledge of this piece! I now accept that a) the ACO has never played it, and b) it's unlikely they ever will!

However, don't rule out the mighty Ardrossan Community Orchestra - they do have a very big gazoo secion :)

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