Following the closure of New York City Opera, the ongoing mess that is the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate, and more, I’m noticing a certain amount of soul-searching in the US for underlying faults. It’s the common ‘classical music is dead/dying – who do we blame?’ trope. And as usual, contemporary repertory stands in the dock. What feels slightly new is the voice of the players involved themselves. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians appears to be leading the attack. Rob Deemer has already broken down a questionnaire sent to union members about what they ‘really feel about 21st century repertoire’, and Local 802’s president, Tino Gagliardi, has told the New York Times that NYCO’s demise is in part due to its abandonment of ‘accessible repertoire’.
But this time some are rallying to new music’s defence. Noting a recent WQXR blogpost in which some players suggest the financial troubles of the Brooklyn Philharmonic may be due to its innovative programming, Marc D. Ostrow asks the following:
[W]hy is it that musicians (particularly union musicians) are so quick to gripe about playing new music and blame contemporary works for an institution’s sour financial situation?
And here’s Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box:
Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.
There’s an easy media narrative here of course: that new music is ugly and unloveable, and that players like playing it as little as audiences like hearing it. And that’s true in some cases: I’ve certainly overheard players complaining about the physical exhaustion of playing in the pit for a Birtwistle opera, to what they felt was little apparent aesthetic purpose. It wouldn’t be hard to get quotes that supported that narrative. But as Ostrow, Oteri and WQXR all note, there are many other factors at play, and plenty of counterfactuals to consider too.