On Monday, Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis and principal viola Tom Turner courteously and generously offered advice to the seven composers whose works the orchestra will perform on Friday. Their suggestions, punctuated by musical demonstrations on their instruments, were mostly specific to the difficult passages and notational discrepancies that appear in these as in many fresh scores.
Composers must permit a balance between providing highly detailed and unequivocal instructions in their music and relinquishing interpretive control to the performers. Dialogue between composers and performers builds a crucial correspondence from why music is written to how it is written -- a tremendous, intelligent musical concept is fated to fail if it is impossible to perform well.
The scene was electric and engaging even to this session's auditors, who heard Jorja and Tom explicate the reasons for their "nitpicking": dynamic markings at the peak of a hairpin crescendo make bowings easier to determine, words can be more helpful than a pile-up of contradictory symbols if a very specific articulation is desired, proper bracketing (of triplets) and beaming make a part more readable. Only a few times, the orchestra players conceded that a passage would likely be unplayable. One young composer's work includes a fast ascending seven-note arpeggio meant to played pizzicato by the viola section. Tom suggested that some notes may be omitted or the treacherous measure may be played arco instead to achieve the intended crescendo. I will be interested to hear what compromise the composer and viola section have agreed upon in Friday's performance!
Orchestra second violinist David Wright was in attendance and also submitted several ideas about writing for strings. One of his composition teachers continually reminded him that "notation is not like writing letters -- it's like painting billboards." Jorja explained that spatial relationships on the page affect how players interact with the piece. A clearly and handsomely notated part gives a composer credibility and makes engaging with the music more comfortable for the performers. The concertmaster noted that she marks her part extensively when playing new music, which shows commitment and sensitivity that I personally admire! She wants to have a sense of the whole score, how the other instrumental parts fit together, where the piece is heading.
Someone in the audience mentioned Boulez and his distinctively French style of compositional specificity -- pages filled with grace notes, extreme contrasts of dynamics in very short bursts, articulation indications stacked in multiple like foreboding towers on one pitch after another. Jorja's reply exhibited reverence, even admiration, for the significant attention to detail Boulez especially demands from his performers: "we are not always playing that music -- unfortunately, we never play that music." Very encouragingly, musicians at this level appreciate a challenge and an opportunity to perform on stage with as much thoughtfulness and energy as Jorja and Tom exuded in this seminar.