Arts & Culture News

Audiences Fear Modern Classical Music, but a Composer and Violinist Are Coming to Dallas to Help

Nicola Benedetti knows you hate new classical music, but she also knows she can change your mind.
Nicola Benedetti knows you hate new classical music, but she also knows she can change your mind. Andy Gotts
Whether you have a favorite seat at the symphony or you aren’t quite sure of the difference between a violin and a viola, the sound of contemporary classical music can elicit feelings of discomfort. As listeners, our relationship with new music is a complicated one, as we recently discussed with Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, whose "Violin Concerto No. 2" will see its U.S. premiere in Dallas later this month. Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti will be the featured soloist.

“I don’t want to cast any slurs, but sometimes we do know that the audience for classical music can be a bit set in their ways,” MacMillan says. “They tend to know what they like and like what they know, and sometimes there’s not a lot of room in their time to encounter the new and unknown.”

When concertgoers see an unfamiliar contemporary piece on the program, they probably think of some of the more experimental, abstract music that came out of the 20th century, like Terry Riley’s In C, which was written for an indeterminate number of performers on unspecified instruments — in the composer’s words, “A group of about 35 is desired if possible, but smaller or larger groups will work" — who perform one of 53 possible motifs for as long as they want. Performances of In C have been known to go on for over an hour.

Or perhaps one might think of John Cage’s infamous 4’33’’, which is literally 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, meant to highlight the ambient sounds of the audience and the world around us rather than the music itself.

“I think it’s a shared responsibility as to why people are not so curious to listen to new music. It’s because some of it, people really, really, really dislike,” Benedetti says. “The degree to which larger numbers of people are surrounded by a culture of listening carefully and patiently to longer-form music is somewhat harder to achieve nowadays, given the noise and pace we’re surrounded by.”

On the other hand, it can be tough to listen carefully or with an open mind when the music seems so unattainable to the average listener. Seminal contemporary compositions like those of Cage and Riley were meant to break barriers and challenge listeners' perceptions of classical music.

“There’s a lot of music composition that became quite inward and ultra-abstract and specific and esoteric,” Benedetti added. “I don’t think that helped bridge the gap between what a regular person would want to hear and what musicians are choosing to write.”

“Classical music, in one sense, is museum culture,” said MacMillan. “It‘s something that celebrates the past, and quite rightly; all that great music from the past is there to be celebrated. However, it still is a living culture, with a vibrant present and hopefully a vibrant future. It’s keeping the sense of continuum going from past to present that I think should exercise us all.”

Despite these feelings of unease, listeners could benefit from keeping an open mind when it comes to new classical music. One could argue that experiencing a new piece of classical music is no different from hearing your favorite rock band mix in a few new songs with your favorite nostalgic tracks during their set.

“Most people in the music world know that and realize that, and they’re always looking for ways to bring new music to new audiences,” MacMillan says. “That seems to be the case in Dallas, which is marvelous.”

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra does indeed have a longstanding history of championing new music, including MacMillan’s work. The DSO was a co-commissioner of his "Second Violin Concerto" and has performed his music for Dallas audiences before, most recently his "Trombone Concerto" in 2018.

MacMillan says that it takes forming relationships with fellow musicians, orchestras like the DSO and open-minded audiences for modern-day composers to find success in getting their music performed. But the upcoming Dallas performances of his "Second Violin Concerto" will be particularly significant. The piece was written specifically for Benedetti, and the two musicians, who are from the same region in Scotland, have formed a unique bond over the years.

“[Benedetti] is a great advocate for music, and it’s her personality that’s very apparent in her playing — whatever music she plays,” MacMillan says. “She does have a love of the new, and she has a great commitment to Scottish composers like myself. It feels really nice in a way, like a circle has been completed in the completion of this piece. Because we’re both from Ayrshire, which is in the west of Scotland, we both have similar experiences growing up in this part of the world. We both have a love of Ayrshire and Scotland, and to be able to work together on something like this has been a delight.”

Benedetti has mutual respect for the composer.

“My admiration for James stretches so much further and deeper than simply my love for his music, which, of course, is huge," she says. "Alongside so many musicians around the world, but in particular in Scotland, that have such a visceral relationship to his music, but also what he’s done as a member of a community. For a musician of his caliber to really dedicate themselves and impact all aspects of how arts and culture are embedded into that community, he is just absolutely the epitome and example of what’s possible for a musician to impact and achieve in society on the highest level of artistic output.”

Benedetti has already performed the concerto in Scotland and has had the score for some time. MacMillan worked on this piece mostly during the lockdowns at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The piece has such a moving, kind of throbbing undertone that has a kind of mysticism to it and a lot of hidden layers of texture and even melodic material that sort of begins to be revealed to a different degree of breadth and depth towards the end of the piece,” Benedetti says. “It’s an unusual shape, it’s also got a lot of conversational moments, certain duo/solo, solos within the orchestra and solo violin, which is also very unusual in the concerto format.”

The concerto is written in a single through-composed form, meaning that there aren’t distinct movements like one might expect in a traditional concerto.

“It’s also got a lot of conversational moments, certain solos within the orchestra and solo violin, which is also very unusual in the concerto format,” Benedetti adds. “But, yeah, we came off the stage on the last performance [in Scotland], myself and Maxim [Emelyanychev] the conductor, and said, ‘We want to take it on tour and do it again.’”

The DSO will perform MacMillan's new work alongside Benedetti and with music director Fabio Luisi at the helm, Nov. 17–19, at the Meyerson Symphony Center at 2301 Flora St. The concerto appears first on the program and will be followed by Anton Bruckner’s "Fourth Symphony," one of the Romantic composer’s most popular works.

“Don’t be hesitant with this at all, you will absolutely love it,” Benedetti says. “It’s such a beautiful, fantastic piece, and I can’t wait to come to Dallas to play it.”
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