Way back in the 19th century and even a little ways into the 20th, the big thrill about each music season was the prospect of hearing something new. Orchestras and opera companies eagerly sought out the latest works by leading and emerging composers of the day. It was much the same with chamber ensembles, vocal and instrumental soloists. This considerable thirst for the new wasn't confined to performers and impresarios.
Sure, audiences craved their Mozart and Beethoven, but they also fully expected to be hit in the ears with fresh sounds throughout the season, some of them pleasing, some (maybe even most of them) unsettling. They didn't stop coming to concert halls and opera houses when new pieces were on the bill; in many cases, they practically stormed the box office precisely because there were new pieces on the bill.
Ah, those were the days.
For a long while now, it has been evident that a large part of the public and a substantial number of musicians in this country have successfully stifled the inquisitive impulse, preferring a world where only the familiar is heard. A cursory glance at the coming music season in the Baltimore region certainly reflects a good deal of that attitude, but dig a little deeper, and you'll find quite a few blasts from the present.
Next week, for example, the New Century Saxophone Quartet will give the premiere of Shell Game, written for the group by Sherwood Shaffer. The program also lists a 2001 composition by jazzman Bob Mintzer, a piece from 1976 by Russell Peck and a few works by some old guy named Bach. Sounds like a nicely spiced combo to me. Ditto for the repertoire mix that the Baltimore Choral Arts Society will serve up in November - nothing older than the 20th century, including the local premieres of works by Eric Whitacre and Imant Raminsh.
Premieres are all over the schedule at the Peabody Conservatory this season - from a chamber opera by Daniel Thomas Davis about a 19th century family of singers and social activists, to a piece for narrator and symphonic band by David Gaines about an Afghan resistance leader assassinated by agents of Osama bin Laden. Lots of other music from our time will be interspersed throughout the Peabody season.
Even the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has in recent years been rather gun-shy about contemporary repertoire, will offer more in the way of fresh material, starting at the season-opener this month with the premiere of John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto. (His Symphony No. 1 from 1989 will be played in the spring.) Later, the BSO will introduce its audiences to a major piece from 2000 by Giya Kancheli that he dedicated to the man who will conduct it here - Yuri Temirkanov. You'll also find relatively recent music by John Adams, Michael Daugherty and Steven Stucky on the orchestra's schedule, which should perk up a lot of ears.
You can get a taste of what today's composers have to say in all sorts of places - from Annapolis (the Annapolis Symphony has programmed Michael Abels' Global Warming) to College Park (music by the likes of Osvaldo Golijov and Edgar Meyer will turn up at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center) to the nation's capital (Washington Opera will try out Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire).
But for one-stop, new-music shopping, nothing beats the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Each season, the school's music department steps out boldly onto the edge to present an abundance of ear- and sometimes genre-bending experiences. Just a couple of this season's enticements: Matthew Burtner exploring worlds where no saxophone has gone before; and Pamela Z experimenting with electronic processing of her voice and the manipulation of sounds through physical gestures.
Even if you don't have quite enough nerve to go avant-garde-ing at UMBC, you shouldn't hesitate to sample some of the off-the-beaten-path fare in store all over the region during the 2003-2004 season. Plunging into new music is an invaluable way to challenge and refresh the senses.