New music: why we need to challenge the “repertoire”

“The composer is a bit like the director of a movie and we are the actors and the actors have to express what the script says to their best ability.”

Avguste Antonov

The case for performing new music is a compelling one, but one that keeps having to be made in the face of entrenched views, a conservative mindset towards programming and a fear that audiences simply will not enjoy contemporary work.

Professor Avguste Antonov is a concert pianist and a professor of piano at the Châteaubriant Conservatoire who has made a specialism within his distinguished career of performing contemporary American music. When he spoke to Music Works in January, he described how he experiences the collaborative relationship with living composers and why he thinks this repertoire is important and needs to be heard.

First of all he challenges the idea that there is only one type of new music and the perception that it is inevitably atonal and “difficult” for the average listener. Instead he wants to see programming and promoters celebrating the wealth of work that is out there and have the courage to allow new pieces to be performed. And not just once as a world premiere which can catch the eye, but then see a work slip into oblivion, but to market cleverly.

“What’s left? Country premieres, city premieres, village premieres, you’ve got a whole type of type of premieres you can do and it all depends on how you promote that premiere…It all depends what you do with it.”

He also speaks compellingly about the special relationship that is possible when performing the music of a living composer. Although the performer feels a duty to perform a work in a way that reflects the composer’s original intention, no one can go back and ask Bach or Beethoven what they meant by any particular piece of scoring, but direct access to a living composer offers huge opportunities.

“You can actually go and talk with them and understand where they’re coming from as far as how they composed the work, what type of ideas, where they came from, and where they’re looking to go.”

But he also acknowledges that, once a piece has entered the domain of the performer, the composer has to allow that performer to place their own mark and interpretation on the work.

“Each composer is different. I’ve known composers who never want to hear me practice or rehearse their work before the concert. Not because they didn’t care, but because they want to give me that complete freedom.”

And that brings its own responsibilities. His approach is to always to be open minded whilst keeping a weather eye on the composers intent. It’s highly collaborative work.

“Composers write what they what they would like to express. But if we look on the other side of the map, it’s the performer when he gets on stage, that puts everything into place.”

One thing Avguste is certain of: new music offers a wealth and variety of pieces that should and can be heard. All it needs is a little more courage on the part of programmers and the persistence of artists like him in seeking out more repertoire, engaging with composers and making the case both in the lecture theatre (as well as the occasional podcast!) and on the concert platform itself.

You can listen to Avguste and all our other great guests on the Music Works podcast here: https://polyphonyarts.com/music-works-podcast/

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