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Music Notes: searching for new composers and a new audience

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"I'm concerned, as most musicians are who watch the operatic and symphonic scene, with how difficult it is for a composer to get heard," says Philip Morehead, a tall, bearded, balding, and rather professorial man with a dry sense of humor. His day--and often evening--job is to get the Lyric Opera Chorus to sing the old music of grand opera correctly and musically. On his own time, he's president of New Music Chicago, a seven-year-old organization devoted to presenting contemporary music in an annual spring festival. Right now NMC is looking for composers who want to hear their works performed this coming April by top-flight musicians. Morehead says the festival emphasizes Chicago-area composers--the 1988 festival was about 50 percent local. But, he adds, "We really want to act as an umbrella organization for contemporary music in the United States."

NMC deliberately chose a festival format. "It's easier to get the public out for a festival than for single concerts," says Morehead. "It simplifies fund-raising, because it's for a very limited period of time. But in last year's festival we gave just under 50 concerts, so it's a meaningful number."

The kind of repertoire performed, he says, "depends on what comes in the door--from minimalist to highly structured, and the more romantic style that's popular now. We have given pieces for singers, electronic music, performance art--last year we had some dance works--jazz, and even rock. It's everything from John Cage to neoclassical; there really is no stylistic limitation." Pieces that go reasonably well together are assembled into separate programs.

Finances limit the sizes of the ensembles that play the works. "Last year," says Morehead, "our biggest piece was for ten instruments. We incline toward small-to-medium chamber groups: duets, quartets, quintets--up to eight to ten players. But at least we do it on a truly professional level. We use the best free-lancers in town we can get--sometimes from the CSO or the Lyric Opera Orchestra." Morehead, who has conducted a number of premieres of 20th-century works in his career, is one of the festival's pianists; his wife, Patricia, is often heard on oboe.

Because of a widespread perception that contemporary music is--to put it baldly--bad, many traditional concertgoers avoid it as assiduously as they would an especially loathsome disease. In this country modern music has become the almost exclusive preserve of academics who write for the approbation of other academics and seldom venture beyond their universities. But Morehead wants to build an audience for new works--"a new audience, so we're not just preaching to the converted." Yet he says it's generally difficult to find groups to play such pieces. "Getting a performance outside by even a minor orchestra is very difficult because of the perceived risks," he says. Orchestras are afraid they won't be able to sell enough tickets. "In Europe, a lot of contemporary performances are given by organizations that are funded by the state," he says. "But that kind of safety net is not available here." Not surprisingly, New Music Chicago seeks financial support as well as submissions.

Composers yearning to hear their works next April have to pay a submission fee of $5 for NMC members and $20 for nonmembers, which includes their membership fee. Submissions must be made by December 5. For more information, write to New Music Chicago, Spring Festival '89, 1801 W. Byron, Chicago 60613, or call 477-1379.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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