Spoleto to feature premieres

Digital video and sound artist Tsang Kin-Wah has helped produce the supertitles for Guo Wenjing's opera "Feng Yi Ting." (Provided)

‘There’s a buzz with a premiere,” said John Kennedy, resident conductor of Spoleto Festival USA.

If anyone should know, it would be Kennedy, who has conducted more than 300 new works by his estimation. With two world premieres and eight first U.S. performances in this year’s festival, Charleston audiences will get a chance to hear music that is unfamiliar, and maybe even discomfiting.

Among these premiere works are two operas: one by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing, and another by Philip Glass. There are compositions by composers from the U.S., Japan and Iran, as well as performances of the last three works by John Cage that have never been heard live in this country. And there is a new symphonic work that pays tribute to the legendary 78-year-old Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, written by Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of the English rock band Radiohead.

Wait just a minute! What’s a rock guitarist doing writing for an orchestra?

But isn’t that what new art should do? Shake us up a little?

Spoleto audiences expect premieres and are willing to try new things, said Kennedy. “From the musician’s perspective, it’s exciting to feel you are the very first person to perform a piece that might endure for years to come.”

Playing new music is a special challenge. To the non-musician, a page of a musical score may seem crammed with notes and markings to indicate how fast to play, how expressively and how loudly. But to a musician, these notations are just the beginning of interpretation. There are subtle aspects in the performance of any piece of music that can never be written down.

“With a new work, there is no interpretive tradition to fall back on,” Kennedy said, “so we have to find what is in there, and do more than just play the notes. We have to find the essence of the work.”

In actuality, even the composer doesn’t always know how a new work of music is going to sound in a first performance. Kennedy said that “there are often surprises; a lot of variables in texture, volume and the density of the orchestration, and how that is cast into relief by a different orchestra or conductor, or even in the acoustics of a different room.”

On the other hand, sometimes the musicians are able to create the sound the composer had in mind, as happened last year for Kennedy with U.S. premiere of the opera “Emilie” by Kaija Saariaho. “It just clicked, and when we can do that, it’s extremely gratifying,” he said.

In moments like that, the classical music world is vibrantly alive. But all too often, it can resemble a museum with the tried-and-true masterpieces played for an audience that can already hum the tunes. Hidebound concert-goers forget that many of their beloved warhorses were once considered avant-garde noise. Beethoven was compared to “Indian war-whoops,” Puccini to “nausea” and Brahms to “musical trigonometry.”

“There’s always a risk with premieres,” said the festival’s general director Nigel Redden, in a conversation about the upcoming season from the producer’s point of view. “With a world premiere, it might not be ready logistically. There are a lot of things that can go wrong behind the scenes. And then there’s the risk it might not be great music.”

One of the most disastrous premieres Redden remembers took place in Charleston, though he declined to name the composer. “It was an opera that the festival had commissioned,” he said, sounding still pained at the memory. “The tenor finished singing and … there was silence. Nothing happened. And then he said, ‘That’s it folks, that’s the end.’ And that was the only way you knew the piece was over.”

This year’s festival may not have a memorable clunker like that one. Nevertheless, the excitement of a premiere is sharpened by the possibility of disaster and the hope of discovery.

In that moment of hearing a new work of music for the first time in performance, in some ways the audience, the musicians and even the composer share a common experience: They are all exposed to the new and uncertain of the final result.