Contemporary classical music has long had a branding problem. Whether you want to blame concert hall economics, middle-brow tastes, or Arnold Schoenberg specifically and personally, you’ll likely find a bigger audience for a marginally-accomplished amateur performance of Mozart than for a professional-quality performance of a living composer. (All other things being equal, restrictions may apply, the Glass/Reich/Adams triumvirate occasionally excepted.)
It’s not for cost or lack of access. In this Age of Information, anyone with a smartphone – that is, everyone – can instantly call up free recordings and videos of the most obscure and adventurous works.
It’s not even the sheer appeal of the music itself. There are numerous composers working today creating brilliant, engaging work that is well within the orchestral tradition but radically expands the compositional vocabulary in exciting and innovative ways; music that neatly fits within one’s ingrained expectations for the traditional concert hall. “Listenable” to oversimplify. It’s a field with a wide variety of voices and philosophies.
Why then do audiences shy away from the new? I suspect it’s fear, lack of trust, the average listener’s suspicion that the unfamiliar modern composer listed in the season brochure is inordinately fond of the sound of chainsaws, combined with arts administrators eyeing the financial risk of a sea of empty seats.
It’s a perception issue. A branding problem.
Enter Brandon Elliott, artistic director of Orange County’s Choral Arts Initiative (CAI). More than a choir, it’s an entity dedicated to the primacy of the modern composer, and to bringing new work to the region’s listeners in ways that support and promote the arts practitioner. He appreciates the limitations of treating the concert hall as a museum and is willing to put in the effort to make a case for the modern voice. Critically, he understands that it is the smaller and more flexible organizations that can build an audience for the new.
“The challenge for any organization presenting new music is to build trust with audience,” Elliott says. “You can’t just say, ‘You know this, you love it, now hear it again.’ You have to say ‘Trust us, what you’ll hear will be interesting. You may not like everything, but you’ll hear what we believe in at the highest level. It may be a leap of faith, but with an open mind we’ll earn your trust and you’ll come back to hear something new in the future.’ I’m convinced that it’s the small organizations that bring in the new audiences that in turn feeds the concert halls for Beethoven.”
A New Approach
The CAI is now in its seventh season, having emerged from Elliott’s undergraduate work at CSU Fullerton.
“I’d assembled a group to put together for a school-related project, and in speaking with the singers as well as considering our own interests, I thought we should explore this,” he says. “At the time, I was just moving to Cincinnati to start my graduate studies, but during my time in Cincinnati, I came to understand that all composers are struggling to get their music out there, to find an ensemble that will take on new music and give newer composers a chance and give them a voice. That was the final impetus. We started in Orange County, had our first concert, and we knew right away that our focus would be on new music.”
That said, it wasn’t purely about the music. For Elliott, it was the people behind the music.
“In the classical, choral worlds, we can name five, maybe ten top composers,” he says, “but there are hundreds out there that are yet to be discovered. It’s not about ‘new’ music but about the human element. What stories are we not telling, what composers are we neglecting? There are so many composers in Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego that just aren’t known yet. How can we give them a springboard?”
How indeed. Until last year, CAI had been largely a performing organization, with some efforts in K-12 education. Elliott’s vision for the organization expanded, though. Seeking better ways to move forward the case for new music, he started the Premiere Project Festival, a three-day workshop bringing composers from throughout the world to focus on career development, study, and networking. During the workshop, participants create a new work for a culminating concert performance. The concert for this year’s festival takes place June 14 at 7 p.m., at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.
“We had focused on K-12 outreach,” Elliott says, “but there are so many arts organizations in Orange County already doing incredible work in that setting. So we started focusing on recent grads, those in career change, people who are early to mid-career as composers. Many composers don’t know how commissioning works; they can graduate with an MA in composition and not know how to handle a commission contract. The inspiration was ‘Let’s create a professional development experience that models that commissioning experience, from contact and contract, to residency and performance.’”
Applicants for the workshop submit a portfolio, recordings, a list of prior works, and a proposal for the work to be completed during the festival. Invited performers can expect three intensive 12-hour days filled with seminars and panel discussions. The days also include mentorship time to refine their craft and polish up details in their scores. It’s a lot of work on everyone’s part, but for Elliott it’s well worth the effort.
“For us, it’s a calling,” he says. “We’re in the mindset to give them a premiere, to get them a second performance. We have to provide a truly artistic product for the composer. We need to provide the composer with an excellent recording, so that when they pitch for an organization, they have a clean score and a great recording.”
One person who got all he expected from the workshop and more is Jordan Kuspa. He participated in the initial workshop and has now joined the CAI staff.
“Regarding the experience the Choral Arts Initiative gives a new composer, I’m a cellist and opportunities to write for choir are few and far between,” Kuspa says. “[The workshop] provided that, and I had the opportunity finally to write a piece I’d wanted to write for five years. …It was only the second choral piece I’d ever written. …It was originally designed as a 30-minute piece. [I worked on] the first section and I would love to do the rest. He agreed that it would be good for the rest of the ensemble and we’re premiering it in November. That’s the trajectory, I hadn’t had opportunities in the choral world and CAI gave me that first platform.
“As for the business side of things, that’s one of the special tenets of the Premiere Project Festival. It’s part of the fabric. It’s not just rehearsals leading to a performance, but it’s sort of a three-day incubator for new choral music. There are seminars with faculty, but it’s not just how to write choral music. It’s what to do in the new music side of things – how to network, understanding copyright, working with publishers. Some music schools do some training out there, but not a lot. What we’re doing is giving composers the best possible education and experience over three days to push their own music into the world.”
After all that, what can audiences expect? Particularly audiences who might be apprehensive about new compositions for whatever reason? What will they hear?
At this festival, they’ll hear a composition written in a language invented just for that piece. They’ll hear a work in which the performers are singing the same music at different tempos. More than that, says Elliott, they’ll hear some “really amazing singing.”
“What [the choir does] during prep is an amazing amount of work,” he says. “They’re some of the best singers I’ve worked with. And we invite people to come with an open mind.
“The various styles and esthetics are astounding, a great cross section of what’s happening in choral music at this time. Just looking at them it will be really amazing, diverse and exciting. The composers are diverse, but the music itself is diverse too. It’s a safe space where they can really bring something. It’s a sandbox where you can experiment with ideas.
“What I love about our artists is that they aren’t saying ‘It’s too hard,’ but ‘That was awesome, what’s next?’ I couldn’t be more excited to have this in Orange County. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Peter Lefevre us a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.