By Brian Wise | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
“Practically no one knows these pieces,” conductor Leon Botstein told a Carnegie Hall audience in May 2022, referring to a program of 1930s rarities he had assembled that evening for Orchestra Now, a graduate-level training orchestra based at Bard College. “The fact that anybody came out on a nice May day is a miracle.”
As the New York Times reported, on that same mild evening, the New York Philharmonic had “limited availability” for its concert of mostly popular fare, including Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto (with concertmaster Frank Huang) and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Meanwhile, there were swaths of empty seats for Botstein’s ambitious survey of works by William Grant Still, Carlos Chávez, Witold Lutosławski, and Karl Amadeus Hartmann.
To be sure, Botstein has drawn inquisitive audiences for his signature programs of obscure and neglected works. The New York Philharmonic also presents its share of rarities: this March, it features Martinů’s seldom-performed Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Sol Gabetta, and in April, it offers Ginastera’s Violin Concerto with violinist Hilary Hahn.
But concert programmers and soloists who wish to stray from the beaten concerto path must often summon their powers of persuasion to get new and obscure repertoire before receptive audiences. How do they do it, and what lessons do their examples hold?
The Reality of the Standard Repertoire
“In any given orchestra season, you can look, and there are one or maybe two cello concertos,” says cellist Alisa Weilerstein when asked about her longstanding advocacy of the Barber Cello Concerto, which she recently brought to the Cleveland Orchestra. “Violin and piano always get priority in terms of concerto performances. One of [the cello options] is usually going to be a very well-known concerto: Dvořák, Elgar, maybe the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, but that’s already considered slightly more adventurous, even though that’s as classic as it gets.
“Then, if you’re going to program a mid-20th century concerto, you might do Shostakovich 1 or 2, and maybe the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, although that’s also rarely played. And then there’s Barber. It falls in there, and it just doesn’t get programmed that often, unless both the conductor and soloist really want it to. The Barber is a piece I advocate for very strongly. I don’t always get it when I ask for it, but I’ve been getting it more often lately, which is nice.”
This April, Weilerstein is due to join the Seattle Symphony with another mid-century outlier: Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, a work full of aleatoric techniques and dense, riotous textures. “I requested it, and they said yes,” she says. “I’ve worked with the Seattle Symphony several times. There wasn’t much persuasion involved.”
Seattle audiences have been primed to expect a certain amount of modernism, but that’s not always the case. “If I’m really advocating for a piece, I wouldn’t go in completely cold to an orchestra and say, ‘I want to do this,’” Weilerstein notes. “Usually, you build a relationship from a certain place—with an orchestra, a conductor, the audience—and once there’s a trust there, then you can align things so the repertoire can go in an interesting direction. It takes a long time to build trust, especially as a cellist.”
Meghan Umber is the chief content officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a key figure in the orchestra’s commissioning efforts. She says it would be wrong to assume that she keeps quotas of certain repertoire—or that her colleagues in the marketing department want only celebrity soloists playing famous concertos.
“You’re convincing the same people to come, and that pool would continue to get smaller and smaller,” she says of any urge to rely on the “big five” violin concertos (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch, and Tchaikovsky). “It’s up to us to make sure the audience pool is growing larger. New music is an important part of that. We need to be bringing people into the hall for all sorts of experiences, and the be-all-end-all is not necessarily a Tchaikovsky concerto. People are going to come for different reasons.”
Umber notes that Sheku Kanneh-Mason made his Hollywood Bowl debut with the Elgar Cello Concerto in 2021, but is now discussing potential commissions with the orchestra. Conversely, while Nicola Benedetti is performing the Brahms Violin Concerto this April, she presented Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto for her Bowl debut in 2016.
The Importance of Conductors
The lure of time-tested concertos can be hard to deny when audiences have been slow to fully return after the pandemic shutdowns. In addition to Benedetti’s performances, the Brahms concerto will be played this spring by Christian Tetzlaff in Minnesota, Hilary Hahn in Boston and Chicago, and Frank Peter Zimmermann in Toronto and Montreal. Similarly, the Elgar will be performed early this year by Kanneh-Mason in Chicago, Weilerstein in Detroit, Gautier Capuçon in Los Angeles, Pablo Ferrández in Boston, and Yo-Yo Ma in several cities.
Still, there are ways to nudge neglected concertos into mainstream programming. For one, it helps if a composer can also conduct their music, says Leila Josefowicz, who has introduced major works for violin and orchestra by John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Matthias Pintscher—all conductors. “For the composers who don’t conduct, immediately they are at a huge disadvantage, just from the perspective of programming,” she says. “If they are really a successful conductor, they can take their pieces with them, and orchestras get to experience a work conducted by the composer. There’s something irreplaceable about that.”
“Orchestras tend to be really open to collaboration, especially when those collaborations involve different territories.”—Violist Nadia Sirota
But Josefowicz says there is also satisfaction in learning a new piece in tandem with a conductor. “That is a huge commitment of time and energy on their part, and it also requires trust that this will be a successful and meaningful musical experience,” she says, citing figures such as Alan Gilbert, Dalia Stasevska, and Susanna Mälkki. “Without those people, I’m much more limited to how many concerts I can play and how many pieces I can play.”
Even with a marquee soloist, orchestras frequently seek to share the potential risk and rewards of a premiere by going in with co-commissioners. Joshua Bell enlisted five orchestras this season to roll out The Elements, a suite of concerto-style pieces inspired by the natural world (see Strings’ November-December 2023 issue). “The co-commission is a really powerful thing,” says violist Nadia Sirota, who premiered Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto in 2015 with ensembles in Madrid, Paris, Detroit, and Ottawa. “Orchestras tend to be really open to collaboration, especially when those collaborations involve different territories.”
But co-commissions alone do not guarantee stickiness, and soloists must find other means of juicing repetition. “Opportunities to play these pieces definitely come and go,” says Sirota, who repeated the Muhly concerto four more times through 2018. “The original commissioning swath is the easiest moment for that.”
Sirota has sought to identify pieces that can be recycled in new arrangements including Daníel Bjarnason’s Sleep Variations, which she has offered in versions for both viola and chamber orchestra and viola with ten other violas. “It has to do with how we are wired as human beings, where we need to hear things multiple times in order to really understand them,” she notes.
Online streaming has played a significant role in the promotion of certain concertos. In 2019, the cellist Inbal Segev introduced Dance, a five-movement cello concerto that she commissioned from British composer Anna Clyne. Since its premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, California, she has performed it more than 30 times, with dates this season with the São Paulo, Colorado, and Fairfax symphony orchestras. (Several dance companies have also performed it to a recorded track.)
Key to the piece’s fortunes was Segev’s 2020 recording with Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The first movement alone has notched over 10 million streams on Spotify, with three quarters of those due to its placement on editorial playlists such as “Calming Classical” and “Classical Reading.” Playlist promotion by Avie Records and favorable reviews assisted in this process. “It was extremely important to have it recorded early on,” says Segev, who also performed it for cameras for YouTube. “There’s really no way that [success] could have happened without Spotify and YouTube.”
Alsop also brought Dance to alumni of her Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship for women conductors, who then programmed it with ten different orchestras. But Segev is pleased that the piece doesn’t need to be marketed as music by a woman composer: “Dance is such a strong piece that there’s no need to have a title like ‘women composers’ next to it,” she notes.
It ultimately takes years for soloists to build trust with presenters and their audiences. Weilerstein says she could never have introduced her Fragments project, which involves pairing Bach cello suites with newly commissioned works, even ten years ago. Similarly, Josefowicz says she was able to secure bookings with Adams’ Violin Concerto in her twenties only after making her name in recordings of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos.
“It would be very hard for someone to just start a career with [new] pieces only,” she says. “There are so many considerations that orchestras, administrations, and conductors must take into account about a program, ticket sales, and programming. So if I’m known to be the wild card that comes in to do the piece that people haven’t heard before, that takes a certain level of trust from an institution.”
Josefowicz continues, “Obviously, the soloist holds a lot of power of conviction and persuasion and having this infectious enthusiasm. Without that, it becomes a different experience that may not be very enticing to people. So, it’s really, really important that I am convincing, I am persuasive, and I am inspiring.”