What It Takes To Create New Music

Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of editing a pair of articles written by Lyric Opera of Chicago Principal Horn, Jon Boen, for Polyphonic.org. The articles detail Jon’s experiences related to commissioning, performing, and recording an extensive concerto for French Horn and orchestra…

Jon%20Boen.jpgEven though Jon’s process lasted nearly two decades, the articles do a really wonderful job at walking the reader through just how much effort is involved in creating a 40 minute concerto. It is difficult enough for an established orchestra to commission, perform, and record new music let alone an individual. And that’s really where the articles shine. They detail the cost, both personal and economic, behind the project as well as the amount of personal risk involved.

A unique feature to the articles is the use of embedded audio clips designed to let you listen to what you’re reading about. The clips are all 128kb, 44Hz, stereo MP3 files so the sound is as good as anything you will hear from a standard CD. Furthermore, the clips not only include audio from the finished CD but also from the recording sessions and some live performances during fundraising events.

Take a moment out of day and spend some time with both articles, you’ll be glad you did:

Part 1: Commissioning And Performing The Concerto

Part 2: Recording The Concerto

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “What It Takes To Create New Music”

  1. I was very glad to read these articles and commend Jon Boen’s considerable efforts over these many years. I’ll probably buy the CD just on principle.

    But this article also highlights one of the main problems I see in today’s music world: how does a good new piece, even one that audiences seem to like, get “legs?”

    Some of the best new works I’ve ever heard have actually been commissioned by community orchestras, not major professional groups. Little chance for recordings, or exposure to globe-trotting conductors who might champion them. It’s unlikely even the professional orchestra in town will take up the piece – since it must be second-rate if a non-major orchestra commissioned/premiered it or it wasn’t written by one of the music director’s shortlist of favorite composers.

    But even when professional orchestras have a successful new work, they usually fail to launch it, too. They’ll think nothing of repeating a Beethoven or Brahms symphony every 2-3 years, but how often will they repeat a piece they themselves commissioned? How good are artistic administrators at passing along good pieces to their colleagues at other orchestras?

    I’m very glad Jon Boen has now recorded this concerto, and I wish him success in getting more performances – both for himself and for his colleagues around the country (or even around the world?). I do wonder why he wasn’t able to do that in the 20 years since the piece premiered, even without a CD to share. I imagine it wasn’t for lack of trying.

  2. Hi Marko, and thanks for your feedback. I can respond to some of the questions that you raised. I think a piece such as the Jan Bach Horn Concerto could be championed by a “globe-trotting conductor”, but it’s difficult to get them to take (or find) the time to listen to the CD. In the absence of Maestro “X” taking up the cause, other options include hiring a manager, self-promotion, or a combination of both. In my case, back in 1983 when the initial performances were given, I had my Chicago Brass Quintet management willing to help me with the promotion of the piece. As a member of the CBQ, I was able to get some support from one of their managers by fielding responses from the ASOL concert of the Horn Concerto at Orchestra Hall, and passing out brochures. Nothing came of it, but looking back, I’m not sure how much effort was put into it–perhaps they didn’t foresee enough profit to merit the time for their business. This time, I used my friend Sylvie as my PR agent, who wrote a great press release for the CD. Yes, a recording would have helped the visibility quite a bit back then, but there is another issue that I believe factors into the equation. There is the reality that most organizations tend to feature violinists, pianists, vocalists and the occasional cellist as soloists. (Does anyone know the statistics on this subject?) A wind soloist is frequently chosen by the Music Director, and usually is a principal player in the orchestra. This therefore limits the available slots for a visiting soloist in this genre.
    When Jan wrote the Horn Concerto, he was very aware of this fact, and wrote his “Jan” session for the entire horn section. What one is unable to experience from listening to the recording, is that the entire horn section makes their way to the front of the stage, jamming with the soloist while the orchestra claps. It’s a great way to showcase the orchestral horn section–giving them something challenging and different to do, and it’s a fun visual to further engage the audience.

    How does a new composition get “legs” today? My advice has been rather consistent for the past 20 years–it’s who you know. The conductor of the Lincoln, Nebraska orchestra was the concertmaster for the Orchestra of Illinois, which premiered the Horn Concerto. He loved the piece and wanted to perform it with his group–he was the decision maker (the Decider) of the organization who took a chance by programming a new piece, but had a good idea of how the listeners would respond. He saw it first-hand, knew his audience, and it worked. I’ve been told to send CDs to all of my contacts–conductors, managers, critics, and classical music bloggers…some who have ironically been too busy writing about the demise of classical music to listen to my CD! Steve Lewis, the engineer on the project, commented that once the project was finished, the real work had to begin. There is no substitute for persistence. (My greatest fear is that the discs will end up as coasters for cocktail parties.)

    I’ll continue to promote the piece in as many ways as possible. Jan Bach is a gifted composer who deserves to be heard. I’m also open to suggestions…

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