Programming: New Music or Old Faithfuls?

Recently I've been reading a number of articles about the merits of programming (or not programming) new music, and how it can be programmed alongside standard works, instead of standard works, or not at all during a musical season.  It seems that most of the articles I've read come down on the side of programming standard works almost exclusively, with some newer works sprinkled in for variety.

Many of the same bloggers/authors/reporters that argue that pieces from the standard repertoire should be programmed first and foremost argue that the standards become the standards for a reason, and that the educational value of the music is greater for students.  They also argue that audiences would rather support performances of music that they know, as opposed to new music.

I disagree.  Firmly.  Perhaps I'm being brash, or am jaded by my love of new music for wind bands.  There are several reasons for my unequivocal support of new music.

But first, let me be clear:  I do NOT hate the standard repertoire of wind band music.  Quite the opposite.  I love it.  There are most definitely reasons that standard works by the likes of Dello Joio, Grundman, Schuman, Persichetti, MacBeth, Bennet and MANY others are so popular.  As educators we absolutely need to program these pieces for the musical education of our students.

My big disagreement is in the belief that we should only play standard works (whether for educational value or audience enjoyment) or at least a majority of standard works.  What is wrong with new music?  Nothing.  Who is to say that works premiered today won't become pieces of the standard repertoire 50 years from now?  No one.

I am (and will remain) a champion of new music.  This academic year, ensembles that I conduct performed the world premiere performances of six works, including one concert that was entirely made up of world premiere performances.  My students did not suffer for this.  Rather, they were allowed to learn new pieces with no preconceived notions, no recordings to study, no youtube videos to peruse.  

I would posit that this experience had MORE educational value, especially for my students that are working towards teacher certification and will go on to lead their own ensembles.  Interpretation, score study, and rehearsal technique are all influenced by the pieces that are programmed for performance, and they were part of the first rehearsals of pieces.  They were able to see, from day one, how I approach scores, rehearsal, and the process of preparation.  More than anything, they learned (I hope) that one does NOT have to have a recording to study (or copy), and can be informed musically by the pull of the ensemble and the musical ideas the composer wrote in the score.

I would also argue that audiences enjoyed these performances immensely.  Perhaps not MORE than a program made up of traditional standard pieces, but at least as much.  The music was fresh, invigorating, and new.  They didn't know what to expect.  They were able to discover new favorite sections in music (rather than waiting for the "part I love!"), allowed to form their own opinion (rather than thinking "I'm supposed to like this, because I'm a music lover"), and given the chance to celebrate new classical music.

Our season of firsts culminated in a premiere performance of "Poem of Many in One" by Robert Giracello, based on text by Walt Whitman, and written for combined wind ensemble and concert choir.  Because the piece was written for our music program, we were able to inform the composer about strengths and weaknesses, work together to find inspired text, and program for audience participation, which is something that works extremely well around these parts.

All of this is to say, don't shun new music just for being new.  When presented with the opportunity to perform new works that fit your ensemble and will provide for an opportunity for true music education, do it.  But don't program new works just to program new works, either.  The standards are standards for a reason, but there is nothing wrong helping to create new standards, one premiere at a time.