I know I have. And, as a result, Gardner’s questions, and the subsequent responses have brought a flood of thoughts to my mind. I’ll try to share them in a clear and organized fashion.
If the piece in question has already been performed on another occasion – and especially if it has already been performed well on another occasion – I don’t think there’s much harm done by a bad performance. Yes, it’s true that many concert-goers (including more than a few professional critics) will probably leap to the conclusion that they’ve just heard a bad piece, rather than a bad performance of a good piece. But at least the composer will know otherwise. He or she should force a smile and take a bow, in the disappointing yet oddly comforting knowledge that the performers aren’t up to scratch.
However, I find that a bad performance that’s also a world premiere can seriously mess with a composer’s head. (I speak from personal experience.) This is when evil self-doubts invade the mind. Is the piece poorly notated, or unclear in some way? Does it make unreasonable demands on the performers? Do the performers dislike the piece, and feel no enthusiasm for it? Or is it simply a bad piece that wouldn’t sound good even if done by the best performers in the world under ideal conditions?
I’m reminded of a choral composition I wrote some years ago. I knew it was difficult – but I didn’t realize just how difficult until a friend who conducts an amateur choir agreed to program it, as a favour to me. The resulting performance was a train-wreck, and this led to a state of embarrassed silence between me and my conductor-friend. But even worse, it made me doubt my abilities to write well for choral forces – and for many years I made no further attempts to do so.
Then, through a series of fortuitous events, the piece found its way into the hands of a fine professional choir. They sight-read it better than the first choir performed it. And when it was finally performed professionally for an audience, the results were superb. I felt deeply vindicated by the experience – and I learned a few things about composing, and about myself.
While it’s tempting – especially for “emerging” composers – to take advantage of every performance opportunity that presents itself, this may be one instance when it’s wiser to look gift horses in the mouth. Carefully assessing performers’ abilities, no matter how eager and well intentioned they may be, is only prudent.
As several respondents to Gardner’s blog have pointed out, a poor performance may be damaging to a composer’s professional stature and reputation. But I think the greater harm can be the damage that’s internalized by such an experience. That’s when things can get downright ugly.
By the way, the choir that finally gave an excellent performance of my challenging setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Mid-Winter was the Houston Chamber Choir (in Houston, Texas), directed by Robert Simpson.
© Colin Eatock 2013