What Happens After the Premiere?

To commission and premiere a new piece of music can garner a chorus and a composer media attention, industry recognition, and a concert hall full of audience members. We explore the strategies that choruses have employed to keep their programming fresh and their commissioned works evergreen.

Here’s a headline we will never see: “Choral Arts Society Announces Second-Ever Performance of New Composition.”

Like the resale value of a new car the moment it leaves the dealer’s lot, the PR value attached to a new piece of music plummets immediately after its premiere. The difference, a cynical composer might respond, is that there’s a market for used cars.

That imagined bit of black humor is an exaggeration, of course. If there were no repeat performances of choral music, how would so many listeners recognize the names Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen? Yet, for many composers the exaggeration rings all too true. They commonly complain that the second performance is much harder to come by than the first.

“I hear it all the time from composers,” says John Nuechterlein, president and CEO of the American Composers Forum. “I hear the same thing at major conferences. Most composers find premieres to be more possible than second performances because everyone wants the glory of a first performance.”

At the same time, anyone interested in the vitality of music understands the importance of encouraging second performances. Among them are the most recent winners of Chorus America and ASCAP’s honors for championing new music. They are as eager as composers to find paths to life beyond the premiere, and they come up against the same obstacles.

“When composers are out there networking in a positive way with conductors, building the buzz, it leads to more performances. I know it’s a dirty word, but you’ve got to know how to market yourself.” -John Nuechterlein, American Composers Forum

Diminished cachet is the big one. “A premiere is always a hook,” says Nuechterlein. “Ensembles are still leery of programming contemporary music unless it has an angle. We live in a time where everything seems to need an angle if it’s going to be noticed.” For Nuechterlein, it comes down to supply and demand. “There are so many opportunities now for choruses to program great new music. How do you filter all that?"

Strategy #1: Take a "No Repeats" Approach to Programming

Contributing to a flooded market for choral music is its low publishing cost, relative to instrumental music. “Because it isn’t all that expensive,” says Donald Nally, conductor of the Philadelphia ensemble The Crossing. “Many choirs opt to spend money on their own new pieces, which is understandable from the ego side.”

The Crossing, which won a Chorus America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, is described on its website as “one of the only professional choirs in the world dedicated to singing exclusively new and recently-composed works.” Because of that exclusive approach, Nally acknowledges that fans of The Crossing are not likely to hear the group sing the same piece twice.

It’s an approach shared by another award honoree, the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco. The ensemble does, however, make an annual exception to its no-repeats policy: the piece voted the year’s audience favorite gets an encore the following season.

Strategy #2: Reinvigorate Recycled Pieces

With their wider-ranging repertoires, the Bay Area group WomenSing and the Peninsula Women’s Chorus don’t consider “reprise” a dirty word. “Commissions are old news,” says Martín Benvenuto, who leads both groups. WomenSing recently won the Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award for expanding its mission by integrating new music into its performances. The Women's Chorus also received Adventurous Programming Awards in 1999 and 2003. “At the Chorus in particular,” says Benvenuto, “we’re working on finding ways to recreate the excitement of the premiere. We like to see a piece take wings.”

As an avid browser for worthy music that’s been “neglected for odd reasons,” Mark Shapiro aims for “a healthy combination” of new music and local premieres in his programming, which earned three Adventurous Programming Awards for Cantori New York and an Alice Parker Award for the Monmouth Civic Chorus. “There’s an ecological side to it,” he says. “I want music that deserves more performances to have them.”

The likelihood that a piece will earn repeat performances may depend most of all on what cubist painter Georges Braque described as the “one thing that matters” in art: “what cannot be explained.” Even so, anyone who’s deeply invested in a premiere spends time weighing the tangible evidence: why do some deserving pieces break through the second-performance barrier when others do not?

Strategy #3: Composer-Conductor Networking

The obstacle may be higher for some composers than it is for others. While her friends in the field tend to agree that life beyond the premiere can be tough for instrumental music, Libby Larsen recalls few complaints from choral composers. She’s been very fortunate with her own choral works, she says.

“Most of them, with the exception of works for large chorus and orchestra, have had not only second but several performances by choruses around the country and in Europe.”

An important factor in appealing to a range of choral directors, she believes, is choice of text. “First and foremost,” she says, the text must “inspire music in the composer and at the same time speak to many people in many ways. For me, it’s the most difficult part of the process.”

Effective collaboration can be another way to help a commission toward a life of its own. Grant Gershon of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, another recipient of a Chorus America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, makes it a point to cultivate relationships with composers. While a piece is in development, he cautions them not to make the piece “so specific to the Los Angeles Master Chorale that it can’t be repeated”—or so difficult that only the most accomplished groups can take it on. After the first performance, he offers candid feedback, identifying flaws that might prevent the music from taking root.

From the composer’s side, Larsen stresses the importance of working “with conductors and choirs who bring out the best of them in the compositional process. Often these conductors are the same ones who gain reputations as champions of new work.”

It’s up to composers to initiate these relationships, as far as Nuechterlein is concerned. “When composers are out there networking in a positive way with conductors, building the buzz, it leads to more performances. I know it’s a dirty word, but you’ve got to know how to market yourself.”

“At [Peninsula Women’s] Chorus...we’re working on finding ways to recreate the excitement of the premiere. We like to see a piece take wings.” -Martín Benvenuto, artistic director

Conductors who champion new music tend to see it as a mutual responsibility. “I hope we all can work more together on sharing,” says Susan McMane, artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, winner of an Adventurous Programming Award. She points to several vehicles already in place: lists of new music compiled for conferences, second hearings at the Chorus America Conference, and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth among conductors.

Strategy #4: Hard Work + Patience + Marketing

Working with Santa Barbara Music Publishing, the International Orange Chorale has shepherded several of its premieres into print, a relationship culminating this year in a new choral music series.

Likewise, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, another Adventurous Programming Award recipient, showcases its commissions under the banner Transient Glory, which began as a concert series and has expanded to include published music and recordings. Collaborating with WNYC Radio New York and American Public Media, the group has also launched an initiative called Radio Radiance, which shares YPC commissions with the rest of the country via radio and podcasts.

Although The Crossing seldom repeats its commissions, “we’re really committed to promoting a piece,” says Nally. The ensemble also uses digital media, including its own website and YouTube, to provide exposure for the music it introduces.

Schola Cantorum on Hudson, based in Jersey City, New Jersey, has always been active in premiering new works, says founder and artistic director Deborah Simpkin King. But she had little idea of the obstacles lying in the path of newly launched pieces until 2006, when she began working with composer Randall Svane to book a second performance for his 30-minute, a cappella mass. The Schola Cantorum premiere was “brilliantly reviewed and got a wonderful audience response,” she says, but it took another two years of extraordinary effort to earn the mass a second hearing. “Because of that,” King recalls, “I recognized how hard Randall had to work to get anyone to give him time of day.”

The effort got her to thinking about creating new opportunities for once-performed compositions. The thinking led eventually to an initiative called Project Encore, launched in 2009. Under the auspices of Schola Cantorum, King has assembled a tiny staff and a small but growing database of choral works that have received no more than one “significant” performance. Despite minimal marketing, an increasing submission rate suggests to King that composers are learning about Project Encore. Scores are evaluated by an anonymous panel of conductors. Those that pass muster go into the database, which now numbers about 70 compositions, searchable by keywords and scoring elements.

“Without exception,” says King, “composers who have learned of Project Encore have said, ‘I can’t believe somebody is addressing this. It’s been long overdue. Thank you!’” It’s clear, however, that King created Project Encore primarily for other conductors, to encourage their active discovery of new music without making them feel obligated to pore over every score that comes their way. “How do you vet it all? It’s overwhelming, frankly.”

To her colleagues, especially younger conductors, she sends a plea: “Don’t just go and accept what is handed to you by publishers. Try to expand your thinking.” Without conductors who are committed to giving new compositions a second chance, King hates to think what would happen.

“Where are we going to find music that will move audiences to tears, or just get them to buy tickets?” she wonders. As far as King is concerned, the issue is vital to the future of choral music—significant enough for a “little bitty ensemble” like hers to take it on.