Our orchestral one-night stands

When 90 per cent of Canadian compositions are played only once, where’s our heritage?


Our orchestral one-night stands

The third movement of Alexander Brott’s Violin Concerto just scoots along like a bat out of hell. Muted trumpets, rattling percussion and pizzicato cellos urge the soloist along as she negotiates a slalom course of double stops, infernal country-style fiddling, and chromatic rising passages that could serve as the soundtrack for milk boiling over on a hot stove. Brott’s concerto received its New York City debut at Carnegie Hall in 1953, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, no less. The New York Times reviewer called Brott’s concerto “original, brilliant, technically resourceful . . . one wonders here if there is not something really new under the sun in a composer’s approach to the modern concerto form.”

I was about to suggest you make a point of going to hear Brott’s concerto the next time your local symphony orchestra plays it. But that’s useless advice. Alexander Brott was a Canadian. He wrote his concerto more than half a century ago. And Canadian orchestras don’t play old Canadian music. In fact, they hardly ever play Canadian music that’s more than a few years old.

That’s a problem.

Of course it’s also a sweeping generalization. It is possible to find exceptions. But as a rule you would need a team of bloodhounds, a dowsing rod and stacks of orchestra calendars to find one or two cases a year of a Canadian orchestra performing part of our formidable musical heritage.

In September the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal played Kaleidoscope, a “symphonic fantasy” written by Pierre Mercure in 1948. The OSM’s crosstown rivals, the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, recorded Kaleidoscope last year under the orchestra’s formidable young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, along with much more familiar music by England’s Benjamin Britten and France’s Claude Debussy. An Australian reviewer for the MusicWeb website wrote that Kaleidoscope, not the European repertoire standards, is “the most exciting thing about this album, and the thing that makes it worth hearing.”

But again, that’s the exception: a piece written a half-century ago by a Montreal composer played by two Montreal orchestras a year apart. What’s more common is the sort of programs some large Canadian orchestras will play over the next several weeks. On Dec. 8 the Vancouver Symphony will play Strauss, Brahms and Lehar in a program dubbed “The Magical, Musical World of Vienna!” On Jan. 11 in Montreal the OSM will roll out the big Russians, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. On Jan. 14 in Quebec City, it’s Germans for the Orchestre symphonique de Québec: Mozart, Beethoven and Hindemith. Two nights later the Calgary Philharmonic will roll out two Frenchmen, Debussy and Ravel, and a consummate American modern, Philip Glass. To hear some Canadian music, if that freakish impulse possessed you in the next while, it would help to be in Ottawa, where the National Arts Centre Orchestra will play Montrealer Ana Sokolovic’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 2007, along with some Sibelius and Chopin on Dec. 11 and 12.

Much of this is as it should be. Beethoven and Mozart are the backbone of orchestra concerts around the world because they were transcendent geniuses. Sibelius and Ravel are concert-hall regulars for similar reasons. But if you spend any time in this country’s concert halls, you learn to expect this sort of thing: something written by a German in 1815, something by a Finn from 1915, something by an American from maybe 1930, and something written last week in Edmonton that you needn’t worry about because you are in no danger of hearing it again.

Canadian orchestras do play Canadian music. Usually they play it once. A composer wins a commission, writes a piece. Sometimes it’s a full symphony or a sumptuous concerto, but more often, thanks to the request of the orchestra that commissioned it, it’s an apologetic thing under 10 minutes long that gets tucked in at the beginning of a concert so anyone who took too long to park the car won’t have to worry about missing any Mozart. And very often the first performance is the last time anyone will hear the thing. In rare cases a piece will bounce around among the nation’s orchestras for a couple of years, winning three or four more local premieres in front of other audiences who, like the crowd for the world premiere, have never heard the thing and needn’t fear having to sit through it again. And that’s the end of that.

The composer will probably be hired to write another new work somewhere. The orchestra will commission another new work. Among the large Canadian orchestras whose calendars I surveyed this season, half the Canadian music they’ll play this year is premieres, and almost all the rest is compositions less than a decade old. This constant churn makes Canada a pretty good place to write music for a living. “My standard line is that an unsuccessful Canadian composer gets more commissions than a successful American composer,” the U.S. composer and critic Kyle Gann has written. But while everyone is busy working on the next piece, that last one just goes away.

There’s even a place where the music goes when it falls silent. The Canadian Music Centre is a non-profit promoter of Canadian classical composition. It has offices in five Canadian cities, thanks to funding from governments, corporations and individual donors. It runs its own excellent little record company, Centrediscs, to document some of every year’s musical output. It is digitizing scores and putting ever more recordings of its associate composers’ music online. It loans scores to orchestras and smaller performing-arts organizations. In its Toronto regional headquarters just off downtown Yonge Street, the CMC keeps a free lending library of 18,000 scores written over the decades by almost 700 composers.

Ninety-nine per cent of the compositions have been performed only once.

“You can call it a one-night stand,” CMC executive director Elisabeth Bihl says. “Composers get commissioned, the piece has its premiere, and then it comes here to our archives.”

Let’s be frank about one reason for this. “A lot of it sucks,” Toronto composer Gary Kulesha says. Canadian music is hardly immune from the iron dictates of Sturgeon’s Law, named after the science-fiction author who decreed that “90 per cent of everything is crap.” The figure may be higher for Canadian music in the classical tradition, because so much of it was written in the late 20th century, when the very tenets of the tradition were under siege. Dissonance, serialism, random chance and other assaults on ancient ideas of melody and order left little room, in some circles, for a pretty melody or a beguiling development. Many Canadian composers joined the assorted revolutions. In many cases what resulted might pass muster by the criteria of some academic analysis, but even sophisticated audiences were left cold and would be again.

Yes, but. For one thing, plenty of Canadian composers felt no obligation to follow the atonal diktats of the various academic revolutions. Brott, Jacques Hétu, Malcolm Forsyth and others wrote music that, while sometimes bracing, left plenty of room for melody, rich orchestration, and a romantic heart.

For another thing, audiences’ tastes have evolved. Works that once emptied concert halls now routinely get respectful, and sometimes affectionate welcomes. Even Ottawa’s NAC Orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman, a conservative who prefers not to let Mozart and Brahms out of his sight, pays due attention (often under guest conductors) to Stravinsky, Sibelius, Bartók and other 20th-century trailblazers. Dissonance and floating rhythms no longer send the blue-rinse set flocking to the exit. The Rest is Noise, a history of 20th-century music by Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music writer, was one of the surprise publishing successes of the past year.

So audiences can handle a curveball. They’re having to anyway, because orchestras do serve up brand-new homegrown works. But when listeners are lukewarm about those premieres, who can blame them? So is everyone else. There’s less value in what’s disposable, and music that is forever being flushed in favour of next week’s orchestral mayfly is entirely disposable. It didn’t take long as a late-blooming concertgoer for me to figure out that I needed to learn a bit about Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert because I was going to be hearing from them again. There’s no such incentive with a new Canadian work that will never grow old in public. Conductors don’t take it to heart. Younger composers don’t model their work on it. Even sophisticated listeners don’t learn to recognize and cherish its contours.

Kulesha, a composer with rich melodic gifts, has watched some of his own best work vanish down the memory hole too. His First Symphony, a sprawling 1998 work that requires two conductors working simultaneously, drew rhapsodic reviews when the Toronto Symphony premiered it in 1998. The Globe and Mail reviewer said it should be recorded at once. It never was. Now, only a decade later, nobody’s performing it either. “That really irks me,” Kulesha said.

Like every musician I spoke to for this article, Kulesha has his own list of Canadian works that audiences would love to hear if anyone gave them another chance: Samuel Dolin’s Second Symphony, John Weinzweig’s Violin Concerto, Clermont Pépin’s Rite du soleil noir from 1955. I’ve been deeply moved by recordings of Jacques Hétu’s Second Piano Concerto and an alternately brooding and festive 1984 suite, really a symphony, by Malcolm Forsyth called Atayoskewin. Forsyth moved to Edmonton from South Africa in 1968; Atayoskewin, written 15 years later, sums up his attempts to understand his adopted land, its Aboriginal roots, its folk sources and wide spaces. It accomplishes what music should: it speaks to the heart and the mind. It makes no sense to let it, and so much other great music, fall silent.


Our orchestral one-night stands

  1. Dear Mr. Wells: First, I want to say that I greatly enjoy your reference=
    s to Ornette and other jazz musicians on the pages of Maclean’s.

    AND -I just finished reading your piece on Canadian symphonies performing
    /not performing Canadian compositions.=A0 I play bass in the Peterborough
    Symphony Orchestra, and WE performed Mercure’s Kaleidoscope last year, and t
    his year we did Koprowski’s Accordian Concerto!

    Also – R. Murray Schaffer lives just up the road from Peterborough, and
    I see him periodically in grocery stores, and am amused and saddened that
    NOBODY recognizes this slightly disheveled senior citizen! Vienna it is

    Craig Paterson=

  2. Were the performances good enough to hear a second time? Generally these things are decided by popular demand, no? If no one seems much interested in hearing them again, it stands to reason we won’t hear them again. Of course I wouldn’t know, because I never heard them the first time.

  3. This is also an all-too-familiar tune in the U.S. I would estimate our orchestral program to be 90% or greater music composed by Europeans 200 years ago.

  4. First, visit http://www.tbso.ca to see what Canada’s single best orchestral supporter of Canadian music is up to this season…you may be surprised. Second, no…it isn’t up to popular demand. Orchestra planning is done by committees that are under the mistaken assumption that modern Canadian scores don’t bring in audiences the way dead Germans do. I say mistaken, because I again allude to Geoffrey Moull’s work with the TBSO…twenty years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find Bartok on the programme, let alone anything by a living artist. Now, the audiences are excited by the prospect of new works on virtually every programme they present.

    FWIW: the TBSO has programmed my Chamber Symphony for a premiere next season…a piece I composed (with no financial backing) years ago but have never had performed. I have yet to find an orchestra willing to take on my piano concerto, a new composition finished this year on a provincial grant — despite the fact that I have a soloist lined up to take the thing on tour. Go figure!

  5. I note that the author checked the larger orchestras for ‘Canadian content’. May I suggest he check the smaller, regional orchestras…not just the TBSO…to see what the offerings are.
    As the Music Director of such an orchestra in Kamloops, BC, I have intentionally programmed Canadian compositions for 19 seasons. I have found some fine works but, as Gary Kulesha says, a lot of it ‘sucks’ (which is not a phrase I like to use). Mercure’s piece is a standout and, although I haven’t conducted it I did play it many times as an instrumentalist in the National Youth Orchestra (1960) and in the Vancouver Symphony. There are enough good pieces by Canadian composers to programme a whole season or to just put a work on every programme. It doesn’t have to be new but it does take detective work to find the good ones. Unfortunately, most Music Directors of the large orchestras have neither the time nor the inclination to do the required digging and, where an assistant conductor exists, it becomes the underling’s job to find a suitable piece. It is easier to commission a new work than to spend days in the CMC.
    There is a wonderful symphony by Claude Champagne, some shorter works by John Burge, a saxophone concerto by Ian MacDougall (as well as a clarinet concerto). There are innumerable works by Michael Conway Baker and Steven Chatman…the list is endless whether you’re looking for living composers or those that are deceased.
    I understand there was a discussion at an orchestra manager’s meeting in Banff that raised the question of a ‘Canadian sound’. This is a wonderful topic because those composers that have written works with ‘legs’ also have grasped the fact that their music must reflect some sort of Canadian-ness. Copland sounds American, Bartok sounds Hungarian, Vaughan Williams and Elgar sound British…..there is an indiginous folk quality to their music. In my opinion Howard Cable does that in this country but, unfortunately, his orchestral output is limited.
    Enough….suffice to say there is Canadian orchestral music but without a supportive CBC it’s difficult to make it known.

  6. This is a global problem. Here in Boston I’m reminded of Koussevitsky who had the Boston Symphony play Stravinsky’s then-new “Symphony of Psalms” every other year, for years until it finally caught on.

    This is one problem that digital instruments can help fix.

    For example, The Fauxharmonic Orchestra, of which I’m music director, is planning a series of concerts that repeat the same program of new music. And, of course, since this is a digital orchestra, once the initial work is done to create a performance, playing the music again anywhere is a matter of simply turning on equipment and playing.

    This partly addresses the economic impediment to performing new works, but, alas, still faces the problem of (imagined?) lack of audience demand. Perhaps, though, as Koussevitsky found, repetition can also create demand.

    Paul H. Smith
    The Fauxharmonic Orchestra

  7. As a concert goer myself, I am quite open to hearing more live performances of “new” Canadian music even when it’s already decades old. What I personally like about contemporary music is the fact that many of its composers are alive and well and, in most cases I would imagine, eager to talk about their art. Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the encore performance of Doctor Atomic at my local cineplex. The music was gorgeous, but what really piqued my interest was the thoughtful and engaging exchange during the intermission between the opera’s composer John Adams and American opera star Susan Graham. I immediately wanted to run out and buy every piece of Adams’s music ever recorded — provided I could find it of course.

    I think conductors should be willing to take more risks with their audiences. As much as I admire Mendelssohn, I don’t really need to hear the Scottish Symphony performed yet again next season.

  8. Our orchestral one-night stands
    Paul Wells in Macleans Magazines, 1 December 2008

    Dear Mr. Wells,

    I have a theory about why Canadian music is not often performed. The theory is based on my fifty years of professional music experience, but unsupported by scholarly research.

    The music most often performed by today’s symphony orchestras, was written in a 400-year span of time beginning about the 18th century.

    During those 400 hundred years, thousands of works for orchestra were created, but only about 400 survive today as core symphonic repertoire. (I define core repertoire as symphonies, overtures and concerti.)

    These 400 core works were composed by approximately 100 composers, or four ‘core’ works per composer, per hundred years. (I take the 100 composers statistic from various on line classic CD retailers, “Google” lists and again, from personal experience.) Further, these composers lived primarily in thirteen western countries, or in countries where western art music prevailed: i.e. Russia & Japan.

    Thus, every 100 years,each country has contributed to the core symphonic repertoire about seven and a half works .

    In light of this, and Canada’s youthful fifty years in the symphonic music game, I believe two or three regularly performed Canadian works to be about equal to the western world’s average.

    Sincerely yours,

    Robin Engelman

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