I took immediate action and tried to get the management to reverse their decision which, in my opinion, was entirely unnecessary because everybody involved knew the material well and the postponement only added an extra week to our work. I called the conductor the same day in the belief that I, as a soloist, had some influence. We had prepared the work exceptionally well, I argued, for the world premiere, and were well-equipped to tackle unforeseen situations, because the workshop had given us a physical understanding of what the composer’s aesthetics embodied. As soloists, we knew our parts well having worked on the piece throughout the autumn. The conductor was not to be moved, however. He had planned to start his study of the score right after the deadline, something he was unable to do without a printed score. And he was otherwise fully booked up to the day of the premiere, January 14.
I wrote at once to the management to explain how well everything had been going as seen from what, in my mind, was my central position as one of the soloists. It was extraordinary that the composer had managed to finalise the work in the midst of an acute crisis. I asked the management to reverse their decision. The work was ready, and it was only two months or so to the concert! The management replied that they were willing to discuss whether it might be feasible to re-programme the work when the score and parts had been delivered. But there was no way they would revoke the cancellation.
The decision divided us. The conductor stood on the side of the management and the cancellation; the ‘losers’ were the music, the composer, and the soloist. Their refusal to talk and work with us all to resolve an unforeseen difficulty and the rapid replacement of Woven Fingerprints with the Serenade only served to harden our positions. As a soloist, I had no influence at all in the wider context. This was further underlined when I approached the management after the Christmas break about their procedures in relation to soloists when concerts are cancelled. There was no response. Two weeks later I sent an invoice. This time, KSO responded immediately asking whether we could wait with our invoices until a new – albeit unspecified – performance date had been decided for the new piano concerto, possibly in 2017. Andreas Ulvo and I both responded negatively to this proposal since we had both included our income from the performance in our accounts for 2016. The management refused to pay our fees. Finally, we asked the Norwegian Musicians Society (MFO) to step in. We were paid in April and our contact with KSO ceased. Elected leaders at The Norwegian Society for Composers for the year 2015/16 did virtually nothing to help us get the decision reversed.
I believe we have a collective responsibility to develop our musical tradition and avoid stagnating. The major bodies in the music sector are subsidised by the state to commission and premiere new music and to offer fresh music to the public. A survey by NKF 5 in 2011 showed that Norwegian and foreign premieres accounted for only 2.08 percent of music performed by the major Norwegian orchestras in the seasons from 2004 to 2007, measured in terms of duration.
At the heart of new music is a principle: the people involved must be willing to think in new ways. When we commission a new work or accept a soloist engagement for a world premiere, no one knows beforehand whether we will ‘like’ the music or feel comfortable playing it. When we commission or engage in, a new work, we do not know how the music will sound or the challenges we will face as we work on it. The paradox is that it is precisely this unpredictability that is new music’s strength – it is often at the point at which we cross a limit in ourselves that new knowledge can be won and the discipline progress.
Entirely new works are vulnerable creatures, both in themselves, because they have not been ‘tested’ in the real world, and because they are created by living people in a dynamic, collective process. The situation requires those involved to show trust in others and be acknowledged as dependable.
[W]hoever wins the confidence of others, will also see opportunities they would otherwise not have had, opportunities they can abuse or make use of more or less competently. It may be difficult to get them to accept responsibility and redress whatever they have done wrong. If the recipient of trust is reliable, things will be done which the person investing their trust either cannot or will not do, but which is still to their benefit. But the basis for trust can also be unsound so that the person who has invested their trust is the one who loses out. On does not always enter into such relationships on the basis of conscious choices. Sometimes one ‘grows’ into them, as children do. Sometimes one is forced into relationships because there are few other options. There may be reasons for the vulnerability that stems from an inner connection between trust, power and fallible contextual definitions. Trust neither eliminates nor reduces these risks. It helps to establish them, insofar as one leaves something – sometimes oneself – in the care of others. Trust does not decrease the risk. It creates danger. (Grimen, 2009: 66, my translation)
A trust deficit leads to insecurity. The world premiere of a new piano concerto is a risky business because the music is untried and demands something new of us all. A great deal is at stake; concerts are costly. We are not sure whether the performance will succeed; we are entering an unknown territory and can end up losing face.
Insecurity makes us want to protect ourselves. The repertoire of most orchestras and soloists consists primarily of old music that long since has passed its quality assurance test. A culture has grown up around the reproduction of ‘successful repertoire.' It seeks to avoid complicated experiments by cultivating ‘Teflon’ concerts with virtuoso soloists. Christian Blom launched the concept of reproducing musicians in a discussion of soloists and orchestras who rarely, if ever, perform new music. A reproducing musician takes no responsibility to extend or expand a tradition by performing new works. Reproducing musicians do not take the risk of performing new works that may be judged as a total failure – or as brilliantly innovative.
In 2012, Morgenbladet reviewed my CD Serynade:
Serynade is the outcome of a deep study of modern sound techniques. […] Ellen Ugelvik has ended up in the shadow of Leif Ove Andsnes, Håvard Gimse, Christian Ihle Hadland, Håkon Austbø and the other so-called great pianists in this country because she thoroughly and consistently has concentrated on contemporary music. Rather than play Beethoven’s sonatas, Ugelvik has studied performance techniques, like plucking strings inside an instrument, hitting and scraping a concert grand, using the pedal as a percussion instrument or playing at insane levels of virtuosity in the contorted patterns produced by non-tonal music. (Andersson, 2012: 35)
Performances of contemporary music, suggests the reviewer, are not held in high esteem in our field. Contemporary music has no ‘superstars’ comparable to some of the performers of the old piano concerti. Contemporary music has been assigned an undeserved place alongside canonical music, rather than a central position as a natural extension of our musical tradition. Contemporary music is considered a separate genre, with its practitioners performing in their areas. As the project period progressed, I have noticed several indications that institutions see contemporary music as second-rate rather than a burning priority.
I have in some cases talked to orchestra managements to try to persuade the chief conductor of the symphony orchestra to conduct a premiere, with no success. I have noticed that new Norwegian instrumental concerti are sometimes scheduled for the ‘short weeks,' such the four-day week after Easter, shortening the rehearsal window for the new music. Sometimes Norwegian premieres of instrumental works have fallen on the same day, at least in Oslo. The piano concerto Concert Piece in three parts, commissioned to celebrate the bicentenary of the Norwegian Constitution in 2014, was rescheduled for performance a year after the anniversary. The Ensemble Allegria cut rehearsal times for at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue in favour of the other (older) works in the same concert. Very few students specialising in ‘classical piano’ have any contemporary works in their repertoire. And the KSO cancelled the only premiere of the 2015/16 season because the score and parts were delivered one week after the deadline. The KSO replaced Woven Fingerprints with a work by Dvořák rather than programming a different composition with a similar aesthetics.
The fact that the KSO saw it as unnecessary or inappropriate to pay our fees after cancelling the soloists’ engagement is more than just a mercenary issue. It also implies an assumption that the musicians that do work at the pioneering edge of new music, thus putting themselves at artistic risk, should adopt the same attitude to their financial wellbeing. In the same way that orchestral management regards canonical repertoire as its money-earner and contemporary repertoire as something they can sometimes indulge in as a ‘loss-leader,' they transpose the same attitude to the way they treat artists in the two kinds of repertoire. Nobody would think of withholding a soloist’s fee for a concerto from the standard repertoire that was cancelled as the result of a managerial decision.
Among the issues this reveals is that the tendency for musicians to focus either on mainstream repertoire or new works gives rise to different attitudes and approaches to these two groups. The same discrepancy that the 2012 Morgenbladet review of my CD Serynade identifies from the perspective of reputation applies to assumptions about remuneration. As a passionate champion of new music, it is true that I do what I do first and foremost for idealistic reasons. I am sure that the musicians who concentrate on core repertoire would argue that their motivation, too, comes primarily from their art. And yet their status as professionals entitled to appropriate financial reward is somehow more secure than is the case for those of us working almost exclusively with contemporary repertoire.
What is to be done about this? One solution would be that musicians engaged with a contemporary repertoire as a matter of course. This, in turn, would require different attitudes and different curricula inside conservatories and music schools. If contemporary repertoire were a familiar part of every newly-trained musician’s practice, they would find it more natural to program it in their concerts alongside more traditional works (perhaps looking for illuminating juxtapositions in the process). This would put more new music before the public and, over time, probably reduce the sense that there is likely to be public resistance to such works. In such an ideal world, orchestral management would not necessarily feel so wary of programming new works. They might see opportunities for engaging with the public in different ways. What if our workshop on Ulvo’s Concerto in August 2015 had been open to the public, for example, perhaps prefaced by a talk by the composer, soloists, and conductor?
I am realistic enough not to underestimate the magnitude of the attitudinal changes necessary to bring about such a transformation. However, I do believe that we should be ceaselessly looking for ways in which we can see the opportunities, rather than solely the risks, in making the music of today part of our contemporary concert-going experience.