And now, a world premiere

The thing about playing in a symphony orchestra, which fact is so obvious as to barely even need stating, is that often you're playing music written a long time ago. Something I do often, especially while playing music that I'm somewhat in awe of, is to imagine the circumstances and feelings of the person who must have played the part I am playing for the first time. Some are fairly mysterious; but some pieces allow for a decent amount of extrapolation just based on the context of the piece. It's safe to assume, for instance, that the bassoonist playing in the orchestra at La Scala for the first performance of La Gazza Ladra was feeling something in between annoyance and panic, seeing as, according to legend, the overture was only completed in time for the performance when the producer locked Rossini in a room and forced him to write, handing pages out the window to the copyists. (I know I certainly was the time that I had to play the principal part of that on ten minutes' notice.)

Others are more mysterious, but intriguing. Consider the bassoon solo in Shostakovich's 9th symphony: 

 

The 9th symphony is, for the most part, a light and cheerful work, with the bassoon solo as the glaring exception to the mood of the piece. In the Bulletin of  the Moscow State Philharmonic for 1945, Shostakovich is quoted mentioning (and complimenting) the bassoonist by name: one Vorobyov. How did Vorobyov feel, in the hanging moments of silence before the beginning of the fourth movement began, knowing that he was about to play not only probably the biggest orchestral solo of his life (there are, indeed, very few bigger orchestral solos available)  but one that-- at least in the interpretation of most modern bassoonists-- carries dangerous political undertones? David McGill, in his "Orchestral Excerpts for Bassoon" CD, ascribes the text "Free-dom!" to the first two notes of the solo, and describes later motifs as "fooling the authorities" and "a strong undercurrent of pointed sarcasm."  Stephane Levesque, when giving a short class on his interpretation of the piece when I was at McGill, described his imagination of an individual alternately speaking out against injustice, then being cowed at the dangers of doing so and retreating. 

It's difficult to imagine that this interpretation hadn't occurred to Vorobyov. Was the thinking about totalitarianism and dissidence, as he took a breath for that first F? Or was he only thinking about the hope that his embouchure wouldn't tire before the end of the movement?

This line of enquiry is a preamble, basically, to the point that it's easy for modern musicians to imagine that we have lost something that previous generations once had. The vast majority of modern musicians, if asked who their favourite composer is, will name someone whose music they will never premiere, for obvious reasons. When mainstream orchestral musicians do give a premiere, often we're not too happy about it. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is a kind of time-based quality bias: if "good" music is music that has stood the test of time, then every generation is going to end up premiering a relatively large proportion of total garbage, of which only the cream of the crop will ever be heard by subsequent generations. The second possible explanation is that music has simply gotten weirder and less fun to play over the past hundred years. I will leave the merits of that theory up to people who have the energy for spirited debates about the essence of contemporary music. 

The point is-- it is a rare and unusual thing, to give a premiere which makes you think, "this must be how it felt to play [other piece that I like] for the first time." To play music that is a) good, b) situated unmistakeably in the sound world of the present day, and c) likely to receive repeat performances and become part of an actual body of repertoire, is a very unusual thing.  

I had the opportunity to play such a piece the other night. The piece was Ecstasy by Christos Hatzis, with text composed and performed by Sarah Slean. If these names sound familiar together, it's because Ecstasy is a companion piece to the first collaboration between Hatzis and Slean, Lamento. I actually had the opportunity to play Lamento twice,  first with the Niagara Symphony and then with Thunder Bay, and it is a piece with an enormous emotional impact and an incredible musical inventiveness. You can watch the premiere of that piece, with Symphony Nova Scotia, on CBC:

The TBSO commissioned Ecstasy as a kind of counterpoint to Lamento, as the names would suggest. They also commissioned another piece from Hatzis, which they will perform in October 2016.

Although it would be rude of me to say I hope to be there-- since my being there would require someone else's getting sick-- the impact of Hatzis' music, and the experience of being the first person to get a part, hear it in the context of the whole, and be present for the creation of something both new and lasting, is almost enough to make me want to say it.