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composer FAIL #55: orchestra pieces

I completely expected this latest composer FAIL from the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute since the instrumentation of my orchestra piece is slightly abnormal (and I was not able to provide a decent recording). Fortunately, composer FAILs sting less and less lately, but whenever I receive a rejection letter from an orchestra composition competition I wonder one thing: will this piece ever be performed again?

I wrote this orchestra piece because I was obligated to do so, not because I had a burning desire to write one. Why spend days and months laboriously creating something grand and magical to have it performed only once? Why would my school refuse to play my second orchestra piece when they just haphazardly read through it?1 How will I be a successful composer if the frequency of my performances was whittled down to…maybe once every ten years?

Lately I've been basing my success solely on how much performers and listeners like my music and how often my pieces are performed. I believe composers need to have their works performed frequently, and I have worked tirelessly to get my music performed as often as possible. However, it is nearly impossible for me to produce a concert of my own orchestra music: I don't have the time, money, or equipment to support a full symphony orchestra.

That being said, Joel Hoffman gave me some great advice before I started my orchestra project: he told me to research the most-performed orchestra pieces by living composers and see what their instrumentation is. That way, if I use similar instrumentation, my piece has a good chance of being performed as frequently as possible.

Too bad I didn't listen to him.

According to the League of American Orchestra's 2009 – 2010 Season Orchestra Repertoire Report,2 the most frequently performed contemporary work in the repertoire is Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral, which has an instrumentation of roughly two flutes (second doubles piccolo), one oboe, one english horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, one harp, one piano (doubles celesta), one timpani, three percussion, and strings (*2*222/4331/t+3/hps). It is about thirteen minutes long.

Now compare: my orchestra piece has three flutes (first on piccolo), three oboes (third doubles english horn), three clarinets (third doubles e-flat clarinet, second doubles bass clarinet), three bassoons (third is on contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, one harp, one piano (doubles celesta), one timpani, three percussion, and strings (*3*3*3*3/4331/t+3/hps). It is about fifteen minutes long.

Yes, my orchestra is larger, and yes, it fit the instrumental requirements for the Minnesota Orchestra. Problem is, I decided to add a narrator.

Sometimes I feel writing a new piece of music is like raising a child. If the composer is a good parent, she'll raise that child to become his or her own person. I felt the same way about this piece: yes, I could have written for a smaller ensemble, and I certainly should have not used a narrator if I wanted my piece performed again. However, I believed my piece needed narration because it needed to exist this way.

I have a hunch that orchestra pieces with narration are not performed as frequently as orchestra pieces without narration. Case in point: according to that same LoAO report, Aaron Copland's most performed piece is Fanfare for the Common Man (not really an orchestra piece), second is El Salón México (double winds, so it's smaller than my ensemble). Is Lincoln Portrait on the list? Nope. Why do you suppose this is?3

My guess is the use of a narrator. Orchestras will have to scramble around to find an actor who is not on their orchestra roster to come in, run through a couple of rehearsals, and pay someone who is not normally on their payroll.

It's okay: it's how the orchestra world works. However, I would like to have this piece performed again sometime.4


1. It's collecting dust, by the way.

2. That is the most recent edition from the League of American Orchestras. Unfortunately, it also implies that Jerry Goldsmith is still a living composer. RIP Jerry Goldsmith, your Hollywood Bowl concert in 1999 or 2000 was awesome.

3. Okay, I'm going to get a bit of criticism for this, but I'm going to say it anyway: Lincoln Portrait is not Copland's best piece, and I don't care who is narrating it.

4. That being said, I am *completely* thankful that my piece was performed in the first place. I know that doesn't always happen. (Again, my second orchestra piece is…somewhere on a bookshelf crying.)

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