FOUNDED 10 years ago by four Washington musicians, the Contemporary Music Forum is dedicated to premiering the works of living composers. In the Forum's early days, performances for area composers were extremely limited, and the Forum was the only place to hear what new composers were writing. I did not like everything I heard there, but I went for enlightenment as well as for entertainment. One memorably extreme evening included a performance of Vincent McDermott's "Perpetual Dream," which began with the resurrection of a bag lady, continued with a babbling, manic-depressive mad scene for our soprano, Marilyn DeReggi, and concluded with DeReggi playing a toy piano.
Most ensembles have a standard repertory that they recirculate from season to season. The National Symphony Orchestra, for example, has presented an average of two or three premieres per season over the past 10 years. The Forum, on the other hand, probably holds a record for premieres. To date, it has presented works by more than 200 composers, and more than 100 of them have been premieres. One-third of the music has been by Washington composers.
I did not learn how complicated premieres were until the performance of my "Nursery Rhymes" in December 1980. By this time, the Forum was in residence at the Corcoran Gallery. In this unsolicited work, Beatrix Potter's poetry was set to music. It was a flashy composition calling for slides and as much percussion as would fit on the Corcoran's small stage, including tuned water glasses, which eventually ended up requiring a separate player. This provided our new production director, composer Anthony Stark (who also played the glasses), with a challenge, since the glasses kept going out of tune as the water evaporated under the heat of the stage lights.
Mine was an unusual score. For starters, it measured about a yard by half a yard. This later caused problems because after the score fit onto a music stand, there was no place for a stand light--a necessity, because the stage was darkened for slide projection. Also, page turns were clumsy and noisy.
By the time "Nursery Rhymes" premiered, I had joined the Forum's group of seven composers. As a Forum composer, I was even more involved in the rehearsal process than composers who premiere at the Forum normally are. With their experience at playing premieres, Forum performers took it for granted that the usual changes would have to be made. And there were changes. I had miscopied notes, placed the wrong number of beats in measures and misjudged dynamics (that is, loudness and softness).
What too often happens is that a first rehearsal becomes a combat session as performers and composer debate whether an ineffective passage is poorly written or poorly played. Players without premiere experience sometimes view these changes as unprofessional. Forum composer-violinist Helmut Braunlich has told me that he always expects corrections, and when the players did not resent my improvements, I was pleasantly surprised.
Performers are often not sure whether a piece will work until they perform it. Obviously, anticipated audience reaction is an important element in programming. We at the Forum are fortunate to have an audience that shares our values. They come for the stimulation of learning and they do not expect to like every piece. I think, also, that a lot of them enjoy the sense of sharing and communication.
Referring to his career as an opera conductor, Gustav Mahler maintained that he had never had a performance in which something did not go wrong. For the performer, it is a challenge that necessitates growth. Percussionist Randall Eyles says that it is more challenging to do something that has not been recorded because it forces the performer to make decisions. And for the composer, a premiere is a testing ground and a vital learning experience. Times have changed, and no American composer has access to the type of controlled experiment that Haydn had at Esterha'zy, where he wrote a piece one day and conducted it the next. It was from this environment that Haydn emerged after 106 symphonies as the virtual inventor of the classical symphony and the finest symphonic composer of his age. Haydn's advantage, however, was conditional: he also wore servant's livery and lived above a stable. The Forum has been able to provide Washington composers with an analogous experience, albeit on a considerably less monumental scale. And not one of the Washington composers has to live above a stable.
When I told our flutist Katherine Hay that I was writing about the problems of premieres, she admonished me not to use the word "problems." I believe she was expressing the group's unarticulated attitude: that the time and trouble of bringing new works to the stage are simply an extension of the process that begins when the composer first puts pen to paper. And it is, I think, this process that has forged the catalytic bonding between the composers, the performers and the audience of the Contemporary Music Forum.