The most recent concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of Queen Anne’s Revenge by Mark O’Connor. It is named for the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s ship, which ran aground and sank in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Like much of O’Connor’s music, the piece moves seamlessly from the sound of country fiddlin’ to more standard orchestral sounds and back again. I found it absolutely delightful and wonder what will become of it.
One big reason why German composers dominated nineteenth-century orchestral music was that so many German towns had orchestras. That meant that a composer could arrange to have his music performed by many different orchestras, and it would soon become well known. Even pieces that absolutely bombed at an early performance might be successful somewhere else. If enough orchestras performed a composers’ music, he would become well known over a large area.
The United States has more orchestras now than Germany ever did. The average university orchestra probably plays better than all but the best German town orchestras of the nineteenth century. And of course, communication over a large area is vastly better now. None of that has substantially boosted the reputation of recent American pieces.
To be sure, America boasts numerous composers whose names are well known. You can find recordings of a lot of their music (but not everything, and not necessarily all of their most significant pieces). But what about live performances of this music?
I attended another world premiere in February 2006. The Music Library Association, celebrating its 75th anniversary, co-commissioned Augusta Read Thomas to write a new piece for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. (By the way, if I recall correctly, all but one of the pieces on that concert were by living American composers. Only Frank Zappa had died.)
I don’t have to wonder what became of Thomas’ Shakin’ in the intervening years. I visited her web site and found subsequent performances: October 2006 by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, November 2006 by the Louisville Orchestra, February 2008 by the New England Conservatory Orchestra and April 2010 by the University of South Florida Symphony Orchestra. I did not notice a recording of the piece.
Thomas’ web site is not as easy to navigate as it could be, and provides no search function. I have no sense of how many orchestras have performed any of her other pieces, and of course I have no idea which pieces she most actively promotes.
I have long thought that if orchestras are serious about promoting new music, they would do all of the following:
- Commission new works from composers who respect the orchestral audience and want to connect with it. (There is a wide choice now, but 30 years ago most “respectable” composers expected that the average concert goer would not like their music and seemed not to care.)
- When premiering a new work, perform it twice the first season and once for the next five seasons to give the local audience a chance to become familiar with it.
- Seek out pieces that the audiences of other orchestras had enjoyed and perform some of them every season.
- Include at least one new piece every time they go on tour.
I’m glad to see that the audience in Memphis got to hear Shakin’ on two concerts in the same year, but apparently they have not played it since. I don’t remember the piece especially well. I don’t know if it’s a particularly good piece or not. Neither does anyone else who hasn’t prepared it for performance. No one has had an opportunity to hear it enough to tell.
The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra has not scheduled Queen Anne’s Revenge for a later concert this season. I don’t know next year’s plans, and I don’t know how O’Connor intends to promote it. But don’t orchestras have their own responsibility to the music they commission? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a body of pieces by living composers that audiences could hear often enough to become comfortable with them?
Pix:O’Connor, Photograph by Jim McGuire ; Thomas, Photo © by Michael Lutch