ah, i can hear the composers and performers starting to rally against me, pitchforks raised!
"Any performance or reading is good for the composer!"
Is it? I've heard two recently that were...how should I put it...a disservice to both the composer and the ensemble. The players came in underprepared--I'm pretty sure they were sight-reading--and the performance sounded...bad. very bad. both times, I was fortunate to have the score in front of me because without it, there's a good chance I would have had no idea what was happening.
both performances were plagued with basic errors--rhythms, missing repeats, poor intonation, missing dynamic markings entirely, and lots of missed notes--as well as the ensemble issues you would expect in an "unrehearsed" reading.
Now, maybe I'm approaching this incorrectly. Maybe my ideals as a performer are different. Yes, I say performer, not composer. I like to compare an unrehearsed reading to what happens at the first rehearsal in any ensemble.
Professional performers, how many of you step into your first rehearsal without looking over the part, identifying the difficult passages, putting in at least a minimal amount of practice, and come prepared to play?
How many of you look at it for the first time at the rehearsal?
Now, I haven't gigged much--most of my gigs come from many years past--but in every pit I played in, every sub job I've gotten, I made sure when I stepped in to the first rehearsal or, if I'm "lucky," the performance without a rehearsal, I've looked at my part. I've more than looked at my part, I've listened to the piece, looked through a score if I can get one, and marked that puppy up.
As a conductor, the last time i premiered a piece was a while ago. It had tons of mixed meters, all sorts of rhythmic issues, dynamic changes, etc. When i walked into my first rehearsal, I was not sight reading that score, because if I had been, i would have lost all cred with the performers. and since I was stepping in front of performers whom have never seen my conduct, i definitely needed that cred.
These two readings I saw recently, i don't think the performers did that. As a composer, this means I will shy away from them. It speaks to a lack of professionalism.
But maybe i'm wrong. maybe an unrehearsed reading MEANS sight-reading. In which case, you better be a damn good sight reader, and let people know upfront that you're sight-reading. As a performer, it's a disservice to yourself. As a trombone player, if I step in to play a piece, and I'm sight reading, and there's a sudden range jump, I will crack the note. I may not completely miss it (ok, right now I'd probably miss it), but i will crack it. I won't be reading far enough ahead to see it and prep myself. I'll see it and say "oh shit, Bb coming up...go!!!" So, if I get a part, I'm looking through it, even if it's just an hour before rehearsal. I've definitely done that, my "warm-up" consisting mainly of reading through parts.
But it's also a major disservice to the composer. You go in, you've got high hopes. YOUR PIECE IS GOING TO BE PLAYED!!! HOLY SHIT!!!! It's a big deal for those of us who don't get tons of performances. and then, the group steps up--you sent them the parts three, maybe four weeks ago. in the email, you say "let me know if you have any questions." You attached an mp3 of the MIDI "realization" from Sibelius (ever so real, isn't it?), and a study score. The first thing said to you:
"Oh, this has repeats? Hm, that'll be harder to read..."
Your heart sinks immediately. You now know that player did not look at his/her part in the preceding three weeks. Maybe s/he was busy. Of course, they're being paid $3K by the university for the reading, so you'd think they'd at least take a couple minutes out of the day to look it over.
The ensemble hedged their bet and have a conductor--it's only for 4 players, but since it's "unrehearsed" they want to stick together.
And the conductor complains you didn't put conducting marks, lines and triangles, in the score but 2+2+3 instead. You start to open your mouth and say "well, it's not meant to be conducted, i just put it as a courtesy to the players...and it means the same thing..." but you bite your tongue.
Your hopes are sinking fast, and they hit the first chord
out of tune
by the fourth measure, a player, who has a lightly syncopated 16th note rhythm, is already off from the group. By the end of the piece, you've stopped looking at your score, and you're wondering if there's a drink special at the local bar, and how many shots you can do before retching. and you're happy your mom didn't come.
After the reading, you go through the score with a fine tooth comb- what did I do wrong? What was unclear? Should I remove all the repeats, does that make it too hard? Maybe this cello line isn't playable...you consider everything the players said because they are, after all, professionals.
And the recording is rubbish. can't send it out for more readings or competitions.
You spend three days editing feverishly before you see your teacher. S/he was at the reading, but you ran out quickly enough that no one could catch your ire/sadness/repulsion/physical illness. You nervously tap on the door, and enter. First thing out of your teacher's mouth?
"Don't put your faith in that reading. they were obviously unprepared, hadn't looked at the parts, didn't even stay focused in the reading. I'm sorry you had to go through that. Please say you didn't change the whole score..."
This is why I'm against these readings. Is it good to hear your piece played by live performers?
But not in this format. If the players take it seriously, and plenty do (man, I'm looking forward to the eighth blackbird readings at UMKC. Damn straight they're not going to flub ANYTHING), then it can be a great experience. But, i'm seeing a disturbing trend of players that think too highly of themselves. They think "i've played Carter, i can play anything. Nothing these students write will challenge me..." then they are met with their nemesis of extended double tongued passages and sudden 2 octave leaps. And the performers get defensive "well, that's too hard..." but, you know full well it's not too hard, or "unidiomatic" or whatever you can say. No, you bombed it. And the composer knows it too.
And so do all the highly trained musicians in the room.
But you know who doesn't? all the middle musicians and general audience. Ya know what they think? that the piece sucks. Hell, maybe it does suck, but no one can really tell.
Maybe I'm just in a bad mood, but this bugs me. And, no, neither piece was my own. And it was different ensembles, in different cities, at different times. and there are great readings- the Prism quartet put together a freakin' clinic on how these should be handled, and i'm positive the eight blackbird readings will be ridiculously amazing. But it's so disheartening to see good friends win great opportunities, and get nothing but neurosis out of the experience.
and as musicians, we all have too much neurosis as is.