New works deserve second chances

Composer's Corner

Volume 114, No. 4April, 2014

William Bolcom

The composer and pianist William Bolcom has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts and two Grammy Awards, among numerous other accolades. He has been a member of AFM Local 76-493 (Seattle) since 1957.

Recent orchestral programming is sparse for new music. This is of course a continuation of a tendency beginning in the late 19th century toward older and older music in programming across the board. But orchestras now are particularly lax even compared to a short hundred years ago in presenting new works.

Commissions from orchestras often include strictures like ten-minute time limits and banning the use of non-standard instrumentation. The attitude behind these stipulations all too often relegates a new work’s premiere to definite second-class status against tried-and-true program fare. (Yes, there are exceptions. But let’s admit these are exceptions.)

When there is insufficient rehearsal time for a new orchestral piece (as is the usual case), the resulting performance is all too often scrappy and superficial, almost a public sight-reading – no wonder a new piece is shoved aside quickly! – and the standard works on the program can also seem tired and overworked because there wasn’t sufficient rehearsal time to delve deeply enough to rediscover these recognized masterpieces either. Subsequent performances of new works after a premiere are rare, often because there is not enough foundational support nor critical interest in a second or third reading, which might even be a vast improvement over the debut. Think of the number of beloved masterworks that misfired at the first performance, and remember that we have them in the repertory because of those second chances.

My thoughts here were excerpted from a much larger essay on the future of the orchestra. For a copy of that essay, e-mail me at