Frédéric Chiasson


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Is composing a masterpiece for orchestra still possible these days?

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May 31st, 2011

While reading an article from Le Devoir on a rumor of a nomination of Kent Nagano as musical director of Vienna Symphonic Orchestra, something snapped on my mind: with conductors flying from an orchestra to the other across the world and the shrinking number of orchestra rehearsals, is composing a masterpiece for orchestra still possible in our era?

For my part, the question is important since I won the Orchestre de l'Université de Montréal (OUM) Composition Prize. I have been demanded to give the complete score and parts... in August! Less than three months to give birth to a 7 minute work for great orchestra. Fortunately, I have already a lot of material to fill these 7 minutes, but how much time will the orchestra musicians have to rehearse it?

Forget about the dozen of rehearsals appointed for Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps1. Now, “three rehearsals, a concert” is commonly heard. That this statement is statistically right need to be proven, but I have seen myself many new works performed after three 20-minute rehearsals. But with three rehearsals, is it possible for the composer to write a masterpiece and for the orchestra to perform it accordingly?

I don't even speak about determining if the conductor and musicians have the time to seize the work's soul for a right performance. I am asking how the composer can have the time to change some aspects of orchestration, form and even edition details on a such short notice. To do all this within three rehearsals and a premiere is impossible.

Orchestras will answer that more rehearsals would be too expensive. It is true that musician wages have risen since the 1910's, which is a good thing. We could retort, however, that musicians are too used to the habit of playing only Urtext editions of overplayed classic works. That musicians become helpless before a new less than perfect score is not surprising!

I asked the question to Pierre-Michel Menger, during a series of lectures on music sociology for OICRM. To cope with this problem, Mr. Menger suggested to add to the commission contract a clause that demands to play the work a given number of times, corrections to the score being made between the different performances. An astute solution, but the composer must have a minimum of reputation to have such request granted.

Another solution should be to ask for a reading of the work a few months before the premiere. We did such reading for Bungalopolis. It helped each composer to check the whole piece for technical problems before it is too late: lack of time to change instrument, put a mute or take back the bow; page turn problems; unclear musical symbols; words missing; bad prosody and so on. The composer can check back his score, correct flaws and offer a new and more pleasant version of the score for musicians. These, moreover, will have a main idea of the work. They won't be confronted to a sight reading a week before the premiere.

This would make everybody's life – composers, conductors and musicians – much more easier. It is in the hands of the orchestras to apply this rather inexpensive – well less that 30 rehearsals of a Sacre – but so efficient principle.


1 Maurice Marnat, in his Maurice Ravel biography, writes about seven rehearsals, “which is few, even nowadays [...] for a premiere”, others talk about 30 for the music and more than 100 for the whole ballet!


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