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Apr 16, 2019

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You – Tips on Orchestral Premieres for Young Composers

Contributed by Robert Casteels

On 22-23 Mar 2019, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) premiered Ouverture spirituelle opus 120, a new composition of mine. CSS has asked me to write about this experience. I am happy to oblige, by focusing on best strategies and practices in interacting with your conductor and the orchestra premiering your piece.

Get the basics right

Firstly, let’s accept the following assumptions, some as part of your responsibilities, some from the orchestra:

  • The parts of your new composition are neat and clear, contain helpful cues, feasible page turns and an appropriate number of rehearsal figures or bar numbers.
  • Your full score and parts were submitted well on time. The information in your parts tallies exactly with the info in the full score, as nothing irritates a conductor more rightly so than the reverse.
  • Your full score is clearly readable and contains the necessary information such as instrumentation and playing duration, as well as the usual programme notes. No unnecessary cues please.
  • The administration of the orchestra has given you the rehearsal schedule and invited you to attend the rehearsals. The librarian has done well his important job. Musicians are punctual and arrived well-prepared. Your conductor has studied your score. The rehearsal premises are adequate.
  • No extraordinary event has perturbed the arrival and presence of the musicians nor the organisation of the rehearsals. Your week doesn’t coincide with an industrial strike. None of your key musicians are sick. Your piece is not the collateral victim of tensions between the musicians’ union and the orchestra’s chief conductor/management.

Some of the above may sound facetious, but I have experienced some of those unfortunate situations, either as composer or as conductor.

Understand the Orchestra

An orchestra based on the European model is a massive, hierachical and expensive machinery, designed to perform at best music by a large number of players with a minimum rehearsal time for a large number of listeners. Its hierarchical organisation stems from its origin as military bands. Radio orchestras typically play a lot of new music, week after week. Opera and museum orchestras rarely do. (A museum orchestra exclusively plays established composers provided they are dead). One could argue that orchestras should evolve with their time, but I encourage young composers to capitalize on the orchestra’s inherent capabilities rather than stretching its possibilities. It is precisely for that reason, coupled with financial pressures, that versatile ensembles dedicated to contemporary music have mushroomed in the 20th century.

Who is guilty for a poor performance of a work from the standard repertoire? The performers.

Who is guilty for a poor performance of a new work? Its composer.

Audiences and reviewers cannot be blamed because in the case of new music they have no comparison points.

Get to know the orchestra premiering your work.

If during your compositional process, you notice yourself veering towards techniques or improvisation alien to that orchestra, talk to the conductor. If the conductor fully supports you, go ahead. If not, rethink. If your orchestra members never played any extended techniques, never had to act, never had to improvise, or if the rank-and-file string players are weak, do not expect decent results with e.g. multiphonics, orchestral singing and extensive divisi.

For bowed strings parts, bow your parts. If you are unsure about bowings, ask a string player friend before submitting the parts. Strings section leaders may amend a bowing mark, but at least your bowing markings are important for the articulation. It is a painful waste of time, when string section leaders have to ask during the rehearsal whether a particular passage is staccato, détaché, marcato or legato.

Understand the Conductor

It is important to get to know your conductor from a musical point of view. Rehearsal time for your piece is limited, and an efficient triangular relationship ought to be established between the composer (you), the conductor and the players. Ultimately, this triangle must convince the audience. Therefore, here is a pro-tip: attend another concert given by the same orchestra under the same conductor. The musical choices a conductor makes in standard repertoire will help you form a mental image of his musical mind. This will help you interact with him during the rehearsals of your piece.

I tend to excuse myself for the first rehearsal, because I would prefer the conductor establishing a direct rapport with the players in my piece without my interference. That said, this is a personal feeling based on my experience as a conductor of new music.

Now you the composer get to attend your rehearsal. Where should you sit? Sit too far and you lose precious time walking back and forth, and verbal communication will be difficult. Sit too close and the aural balance will be flawed. Hence, sit by yourself in the middle of the hall, never at the back of the orchestra facing the conductor. Sit by yourself because you need to remain focused.

If you do not have the rehearsal technique to remember notes or issues in chronological order whilst the orchestra is playing, I suggest you scribble quick notes in your score or insert post-its.

Do not talk directly to the musicians during the rehearsals unless the conductor explicitly invites you to do so. Conductors do not appreciate you short-circuiting the flow of communication.

When prompted, start with general feedback, e.g. about tempo. Keep the nuances of interpretation to a later stage of the rehearsal process. The efficient way of feedback is via this precise order of who, where, what (e.g. 2nd clarinet, bar 245, please add a crescendo to forte on beat 3). The same info in any other order is a waste of time. You must have a quick, short and clear answer to any question. It is almost better to give an answer, think about it overnight, and at the next rehearsal apologetically express your change of mind than not to have answers. The moment your conductor or musicians feel that you are not hearing what is happening, or that you cannot answer a question, they will conclude that the result barely matters. Consequently, why would they bother beyond a minimum to defend their reputation? And then the whole state of performance drops. As a safeguard, only write what you hear internally. Beware of relying solely on MIDI playback and using too many times the typical transformation features of notational software.

During off-rehearsal conversations with the conductor, you may suggest to speak to a particular player before the next rehearsal about mutes or choice of sticks or type of percussion instrument. Try not to talk to your conductor during intermissions, because the conductor’s mind may already be on the next piece. Best is to wait for the end of the whole rehearsal.

Conductors will appreciate your well-notated musical thoughts, likewise for meters and rhythms. Firstly, 144 crotchets/min in 4/4 time signature differs radically from 72 minims/min in 2/2 time signature. Putting fermatas on the off-beats followed by an anacrusis with cross-rhythms obliges the conductor to perform gestural acrobatics with verbose explanations and eat up rehearsal time, when re-barring the music could have made the notation much simpler for exactly the same sonic result. If a conductor must spend time explaining beating patterns, then you the composer have done a poor job notating your musical thoughts. In fact, when I jot down a musical idea, I initially do not care about its practicality. Later on during composition, I will re-look at the entire score from a practical point of view and painstakingly re-notate entire sections of music, because I know I will save time during rehearsals. In other words, a genuinely complex musical idea may require a complex notation, but performers get irritated when a complicated notation masks an actually simple musical idea.

Understand Programme Notes

Your programme notes on concert booklet are often the only information available to the listener and the reviewer. Your write-up can influence their perception of your work. If you use PhD language to describe the innards of your music, chances are, that the audience will think that your music is intellectual. If, for exactly the same music, you talk about pink clouds, they might find your music poetic. I have known a composer furious about the review of his work’s premiere, because the reviewer joked, no doubt inspired by a joke the composer made in his programme notes.

In the best circumstances, the conductor will allow you to tell players what the piece is about during a rehearsal. Take the opportunity and prepare yourself mentally to have a concise and meaningful discourse, because addressing an orchestra for your own piece can be overwhelming. Normally players are not given programme notes. If you anticipate that the rehearsal time will be short, add a short programme note in each part score; the musician will read. Of course, the content should not differ from the programme notes written in the full score.

Understand Curtain Calls

You are advised to discuss with the conductor on what to do for curtain calls. Making your conductor wriggle about trying to find you in the audience is pointless, as the lighting makes it hard to distinguish faces in the audience seen from the stage. It may be nicer coming up on stage, but the configuration of certain halls don’t enable you to quickly reach the stage. In any case, avoid looking apologetic or overly modest: you the composer deserve full credit. You can shake hands with the leader and credit visually a particular soloist, but don’t substitute yourself to the conductor who knows the rites of crediting on stage.

Your choice of clothes reveals your personality: A composer appearing disheveled with unkempt jeans-like clothes on a major stage of a major orchestra is only reinforcing negative stereotypes about contemporary art composers.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

You can and you should thank players and conductors, but not at every verbal intervention. Avoid congratulating when the result is unsatisfactory or downright bad, because it reduces to the if-the-composer-doesn’t-hear-why-should-I-bother vicious cycle mentioned above.

I am grateful for my experience with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra premiering my Ouverture spirituelle. In its chronological order, admin, librarian, facilities, conductor, section leaders, players and recording engineer: everybody and everything fell painlessly into place for a fine performance that was well-received.

On this thank you note, I thank you, dear reader, and hope these notes are fruitful.


Cover photo: Robert Casteels thanking the audience, while conductor Andrew Litton congratulates him after premiering his Ouverture spiriturelle with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Photo credit: Hoh Chung Shih

Also read: Review of Robert Casteels’ Ouverture Spirituelle by Eric Watson.