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Orchestras Looking to Broaden Horizons? Start Improvising

Why won’t big American orchestras improvise? The answer might have something to do with a tough night for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic back in 1964.

The great conductor wanted his audience to give serious consideration to John Cage’s chance-based music. But Bernstein couldn’t even get his musicians to put on straight faces. Some played scales instead of the material in Cage’s notated (yet flexible) “Atlas Eclipticalis.” To Cage’s chagrin, Bernstein also led the orchestra in improvisations — which Cage considered a different tradition altogether.

Most of the crowd audibly hated the results. Ever since, American orchestral life has pretty much insisted on fully fixed scores. Improvisation has largely been left to the very occasional special guest, like the pianist Aaron Diehl — who, after studying both classical and jazz traditions, sometimes improvises during a Gershwin concerto.

And yet in the years since that Bernstein debacle, the distinction between improvisation and composition has also come “under serious threat,” as the musician and scholar George Lewis has said. Artists like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell have wedded their interests in varied forms of composition to their experiences as improvising performers. In their orchestral works, they sometimes ask the musicians to improvise, too.

The improvising composer-performers Henry Threadgill and Anthony Davis have been among the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for music in the last five years. The trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2013. All three have collaborated with Mr. Braxton — as have Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Lewis. And all six of these composers have written large-ensemble or orchestral music, most of which has rarely if ever been played by major American orchestras. (Some of these orchestral works are fully notated.)

And all of these musicians are Black. Beginning to program their orchestral music — including works that stretch the orchestral sound into improvisation — would be one way to address larger patterns of racial exclusion in classical music.

The American Composers Orchestra has done more to address this pressing issue than many larger and better-funded institutions. It has performed works by Mr. Threadgill and Mr. Lewis; Mr. Davis has taught in the ensemble’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. The orchestra’s artistic director, Derek Bermel, who is also a celebrated composer and clarinetist, underlined the responsibility orchestras have to approach scores by composers who are also improvisers.

“There’s a language there, and the language comes out of so many years of study,” he said of such composers. “And the idea that the orchestra can’t move a couple of paces in a certain direction toward what they would do, even as they move many paces to use orchestral notation — to try to codify things in a language that these players appreciate and are familiar with — I find that dynamic odd. Because this is the music of today.”

European ensembles have shown more flexibility in this regard. This year, two recordings of Mr. Mitchell’s orchestral music have been released featuring groups from that continent. One, a performance of his “Splatter,” does not call for any improvisation on the part of the conductor Tonino Battista or the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Italy.

That is not to say that improvisation is entirely absent. “Splatter” is an orchestrated transcription, by Christopher Luna-Mega, of a recorded spontaneous trio performance by Mr. Mitchell (on saxophone), the pianist Craig Taborn and the percussionist Kikanju Baku.

“To hear that piece in the setting of that opera orchestra — you know, it’s a huge orchestra,” Mr. Mitchell said by phone recently. “Oh, I was drawn to that!”

The album also features another orchestral work by Mr. Mitchell, “Distant Radio Transmission,” which, like “Splatter,” is based on an earlier trio improvisation, transcribed by Stephen P. Harvey and orchestrated by Mr. Mitchell and John Ivers. This piece does invite members of the orchestra to improvise, in certain passages.

“People are improvising, in time,” Mr. Mitchell said, “and I’m taking different elements of the composition and sculpting pictures behind them.”

“What was interesting for me over the few days of rehearsals that we had,” he added, “was to watch how that orchestra was able to transform itself. At first, some of the things we were talking about were a little different for them. But in the end, they stepped right up and figured out how to do that.”

Shortly after the Bologna dates, Mr. Mitchell and his soprano saxophone joined another ensemble, conducted by Petr Kotik, for a performance in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, later released on the Wide Hive imprint. (The balance this recording achieves between Mr. Mitchell’s saxophone work and the larger orchestra is some of the most exciting music of 2020, to my ear.)

In recent years, the Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov has also performed work by Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Braxton and Mr. Lewis with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Volkov describes the process of rehearsing this music as not terribly different from preparing other challenging contemporary pieces.

“Part of the problem I see in the States, and also outside, is the fact that these composers are not treated as any other composers,” he said. Mr. Volkov connected this problem to longstanding genre confusions: “Like the problem of mentioning ‘jazz composers’ when they are really just ‘composers.’ And they’re very versatile.”

He added that improvisational elements can be quite subtle, as in Mr. Braxton’s “Composition No. 27,” which allows a conductor to choose the tempo at each new section. While it would be possible to fix the speed of each section during rehearsal, Mr. Volkov said his orchestra “knew the piece enough to follow a freer way” when they performed it live.

“Even one element of the piece, when it’s improvised, gives quite a lot of different feeling,” he said. “It’s like doing the third Boulez piano sonata — all these ’60s pieces — where you could really change the order. Some of this stuff in the ’60s and ’70s was really utopian. That’s what I’m interested in now, is finding a new utopia for orchestral music.”

Some chamber groups are on the same page. The JACK Quartet recently performed Mr. Braxton’s “Composition No. 18” at Merkin Concert Hall, for an online presentation scheduled to be released on Wednesday.

And the Spektral Quartet’s new double album, “Experiments in Living,” juxtaposes works from the Germanic canon with newer, more experimental pieces — including the fully improvised “Spinals,” which the group conceived with the improvising vocalist Charmaine Lee, taking two weekends to train in Ms. Lee’s improvisational practice.

“We wanted Brahms on there; we wanted Schoenberg,” the violinist Maeve Feinberg said. “We just kind of liked the idea of the whole range there. And trying to make the statement that Brahms could exist in the same place as something being improvised in the moment.” (The album also includes a fully notated George Lewis work.)

Ms. Lee said in an email that while two weeks wasn’t enough time to fully ground the Spektral players in her style, the resulting piece succeeded in achieving “an honest engagement and representation of my practice.” She added that she was grateful to the quartet for its openness toward improvisers. Mx. Feinberg said that it was important to the group, as novices at improvisation, to do its best to learn Ms. Lee’s particular approach.

“If you’re going to try to do the thing and step out, you also don’t want to slight this tradition,” Mx. Feinberg said. “The worst thing I could imagine is sort of putting it on a bigger stage and doing it a disservice.”

That may have been what Bernstein inadvertently did in 1964. But with the New York Philharmonic committing to increasing its diversity of offerings over “a lengthy process,” there is yet time for the orchestra — and others like it — to catch up and branch out.

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