My first experience writing for and working with an orchestra was about five years ago, half way through my freshman year at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The composition department had a (now-discontinued) partnership with one of the city’s many community orchestras – this one was in the Woodlands. I was among the lucky six or seven of us who got to work with the group writing soundtracks to accompany original animations produced by local high-schoolers.
This was a pretty exciting opportunity for me at the time and it has affected me ever since, but not because of anything good. You see, lurking in the shadows of my approach to this project was a healthy amount of naivety, the kind one can expect from a green freshman in college. My obliviousness didn’t so much manifest itself in the demands of my score; instead, my innocence left me unprepared to deal with the symphony’s conductor (one of that certain species of orchestra directors we composers are prone to whisper about at private gatherings). My rude awakening came in the first rehearsal when the he refused to play my piece at the tempo I had marked. To repair the synchronicity between the score and the video, the Maestro just crossed out about 15 measures of music right before my eyes. I was nonplussed, shocked, so stunned I didn’t react at first, despite the anger and embarrassment I still feel.
Almost every composer I’ve met has a similar horror story, but, much like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, we resign ourselves to put up with this “fuzzy-end-of-the-lollipop” treatment. It is hard for the young composer to bring him/herself to challenge a conductor/performer because it may jeopardize the performance, although being run-around like I was is obviously disrespectful. This came up at Aspen, and Syd Hodkinson spoke in favor of standing up for oneself, which is obviously the right thing to do in such a situation, though it very hard. Sadly, the professional pressures of being a young composer, building one’s career, networking and seizing opportunities don’t tolerate that kind of idealism, preferring – if not promoting – a conceding pragmatism in terms of decorum (and musical content?).
I’m not here to lament the low station of composers in the status quo of American concert music. Like Greek mythology’s Tantalus, that discussion will remain eternally dissatisfied. The fact of the matter is, situations like the aforementioned come from a pretty simple place: people don’t always respect other people. Of course, mourning the poor sociability of professional musicians is also a futile literary expedition. Because it I don’t enjoy fighting fire with fire, I want to tell you about a person I’ve recently worked with who gives me hope, a conductor who I wish could redefine the stereotype single-handedly: Petko Dimitrov.
Petko is a young, pretty accomplished Bulgarian conductor who has been the assistant conductor with Symphony in C for three years and, since 2007, has led the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra (henceforth, WCYO) based in my hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut. It probably won’t come as a surprise that I’ve worked with him through the second of these groups, the WCYO, who – as I’ve mentioned in earlier ‘Observations’ – commissioned me last summer to write a work for their upcoming 10th anniversary season. Petko has been nothing but courteous, friendly and open with me throughout the 16 months we’ve had in connection to this project. In contrast to the archetype of orchestral conductors – the kind whose first words to a colleague of mine once were, “are you going to fuck with my players?” – Petko encouraged me to be daring and bold, even in spite of his orchestra’s technical limitations.
Wednesday morning I presented my piece, Throes of Love, to Petko and Laurie Kenagy, the WCYO’s artistic director, and his positive energy returned with as much strength as ever. Petko has an infectious laugh and I was happy to throw in a few successful jokes as I showed them the sections of heavy string divisi, aleatory, and instrumental noise I threw into the music to break up an otherwise traditional orchestral presentation. Because Petko and I had discussed all these elements before I composed the piece, I wasn’t surprised at his welcoming attitude. However, I was blown away when he started talking about the different orchestral call-for-scores he thought I should send the piece to. Although I plan on using the work as my Masters’ thesis, I wasn’t planning on sending it around to competitions until its premiered because I had written it for them. Yet, here is the conductor who commissioned me suggesting opportunities I should pursue with the piece, including Symphony in C’s own call-for-scores.
In contrast to my first interaction with a professional conductor, Petko has refused to make this project about him, instead focusing his energy on making this opportunity as favorable for me as possible. I imagine it helps that Petko is an alum of the University of Michigan and that I am an alum of the WCYO, giving us an above-average connection from the get-go. Yet, I think a lot of it has to do with Petko. The man is proud but seemingly devoid of ego, so grounded he was exceedingly apologetic when he asked to postpone our first phone chat last November so he could watch the Bulgarian National Soccer Team play a match.
I call attention to Petko’s personability because – cynically – I find it tragically absent in our field. The presiding sentiment in professional concert music is to be sterile and aloof, when just the opposite is what we probably need to build an audience. Clearly, chinks in the armor exist, whether they be Yuja Wang’s miniskirt, Rob Deemer’s New York Times Op-ed on composers from a couple months back, or Petko’s approachability. To this end, we composers don’t always help ourselves out. The wheedling sycophantism with which we stereotypically – in some cases, realistically – approach interactions with performers and conductors is an instant turn-off and, when paired with the perceived burden of communicating what we write, produces a divide between the ‘us’ who create contemporary music and the ‘them’ who bring it to the stage.
Naturally, personalities can only be helped to a certain extent: we are who we are. Moreover, individuals’ characters and musics often bleed together. I’ve already ranted about Kevin Puts, who takes a very defensive position regarding the content of his compositions, justifying his neo-classical predilections with the aphorism, “a composer must be forgiven if he wants to spend his life creating beautiful things.” Surprisingly, I found a counter-personality in a composer whose music is very close to Puts’ in terms of style: David Matthews.
Matthews is much older then Puts, but has only written neo-Romantic music throughout his career. He also believes triadic, functional harmonies are extremely beautiful, but chooses to write in that parlance because that’s kind of music that best expresses what he wants to express. I’m sure the same is true for Puts, but Matthews doesn’t impose his musical language as dogmatically. When he spoke my class of composers at Aspen he emphasized, beyond anything else, the necessity for a composer to find the aural vocabulary that is the most sincere to them, regardless of its content or implications.
I think it important to note that, unlike Puts, Matthews began his career at a time when writing neo-classical music was considered heretical (Matthews illustrated this point with an anecdote about Boulez who, when asked about Benjamin Britten’s music, claimed the English composer, “does not exist”). There were serious professional risks involved with Matthew’s stylistic choices, but he valued character and artistic integrity over anything else. Although there was something rebellious about Matthews’ music, he had deeper motivations to write it. Today, composers can’t attempt that same kind of rebellion. Matthews’ professed – so did George Tsontakis – as much to us, and went so far as to say we may be challenged by not having any musical dogmas against which to define ourselves. Such a struggle for individual identity is another discussion; the point I am trying to make is that I found Matthews’ genuine disposition to beirreproachably endearing, much like Petko’s.
Were more composers so personable, we may enjoy less standoffish relationships with performers, conductors and – frankly – the larger public. Of course, I know other charming, magnetic personalities beyond Petko Dimitrov, and I sense that younger generations of performers, conductors and composers don’t carry the same disingenuous, self-centered personalities as their forebears. However, like rehearsal technique, musical economy and the countless other things we just don’t talk about enough: character really matters.
I think, universally speaking, doing the right thing and treating people with respect are two grossly undervalued concepts. They are no less critical in a world as small and collaborative as ours.