Répons response

Michael Kimmelman’s piece on Boulez in the NY Times today is mostly about Boulez the persona, then about Boulez the conductor, while Boulez the composer is a distant third. But what got my attention in the article was related to the composer angle. According to Kimmelman, Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times”.

On what planet is a piece that has been played “a few dozen times” accurately characterized as rarely performed?

In the real world, most composers – including those who are doing work at least as interesting as Répons, maybe more so – consider themselves very lucky if a piece receives a second or third performance. A tiny handful of American composers might have some pieces that are performed “a few dozen times”, but those pieces would never be thought of as “rarely performed”.

The premise behind Kimmelman’s remark about Répons is that the piece should be more widely played – after all, it is by Pierre Boulez; after all, it is “the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam.”  This premise overestimates Boulez’s importance as a composer. If I had to pick a favorite member of the post-war European avant-garde, it would be Berio or Ligeti, not Boulez. If I had to pick an atonal piano sonata from the post-war era, it would be George Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, not the Boulez 2nd. Try to imagine Boulez’s standing in the field if he wasn’t a leading conductor. Wouldn’t he be on about par with Dutilleux?

Répons is certainly impressive to see (I saw the piece done in NYC in the 1980s). There are six soloists, ensemble, surround sound, enough electronic gear to launch the space shuttle – but the musical payoff is not commensurate with the apparatus at hand.  (Mario Davidovsky used to joke about pieces that metaphorically use the space shuttle to drive down the Jersey Turnpike.) The moment when the electronics kick in is admittedly dazzling, but after that first entrance, the thrill soon wears off.  I remember two things from the piece in the versions I have heard: a quirky mixed meter allegro section, and mostly a whole lotta’ trills – not enough to carry a piece of that length. (The DG recording runs about 40 minutes, I understand later revisions have yielded a longer piece. Maybe there is more going on in those longer versions.) The recent Boulez piece I rather prefer is Sur Incises, which is scored for a mere nine players, without electronics, yet is more varied in its gestural repertoire. I get a more satisfying sense of narrative (fractured though it may be) from Sur Incises than from Répons.

However, my main concern is not Boulez, but the problem of the 2nd performance. In the orchestral world, there is a certain amount of prestige when an ensemble does a premiere, but the glamour quotient for subsequent performances falls off fast. (The exception is when there is a fad for a particular composer’s work, and then being on the bandwagon has its own kind of chic.) Too many first-rate pieces languish. To pick three such pieces at random: Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto; Stephen Hartke’s Symphony #3, Augusta Read Thomas’s Orbital Beacons – these are all pieces well deserving of a “couple dozen” performances, but I don’t think those performances will be forthcoming; I hope I am mistaken.

Of course, there are exceptions, and of course, I and my colleagues are profoundly grateful for the opportunities that orchestras do give us. In my own recent experience, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Chicago Symphony for arranging a tryout of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra last spring. Composers for orchestra don’t get the out-of-town tryout that a composer for the musical theatre does. The second or third performance of an orchestral work affords a chance to test the myriad corrections and adjustments that a first performance suggests.

While orchestras are right to look to new music as a way of invigorating concert life, the seedlings of interest planted by such efforts will have shallow roots unless compositions are given an ongoing life and composers a more than sporadic presence in our concert halls.

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