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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Commissioning and performing new music is a risky business for any classical orchestra. Creating the repertoire of the future is important. But with today's tight budgets, filling the seats of the concert hall often takes precedence. So many orchestras stick to time-honored favorites. Vivian Goodman reports that one contemporary French composer has been successful at getting American orchestras to take risks.

VIVIAN GOODMAN reporting:

Marc-Andre Dalbavie doesn't know why American orchestras have supported his work.

Mr. MARC-ANDRE DALBAVIE (Composer): Most of my music is not pure classical music. It has a lot to do with modernity and all that. And most of the classical orchestra told me that, oh you know, the American, big American classical orchestra, they just like the big repertoire and all that. And I discovered the contrary.

GOODMAN: Quite to the contrary, Dalbavie discovered that orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Philadelphia were been eager to perform his music.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: The Cleveland Orchestra's Assistant Conductor James Gaffigan recently conducted the American premiere of Dalbavie's Piano Concerto, which was jointly commissioned by Cleveland, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Prompt.

Mr. JAMES GAFFIGAN (Assistant Conductor, Cleveland Orchestra): He's brilliant with colors and rhythms. And you don't know where things are coming from. You don't know where they're going to. And sometimes the piano takes a back seat. You know, sometimes the piano is just playing scales and the orchestra around it is doing parts of the scale but much slower, and they're filling in color and texture. But it's beautiful writing, beautiful idea.

(Soundbite of music).

GOODMAN: As with the Piano Concerto, Dalbavie's Violin Concerto plays with the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: In some of his compositions, he plays with the relationship between the orchestra and the audience, sometimes placing orchestra members in the audience. He also employs another technique that uses harmonies derived from overtones to take listeners deep into the inner space of the music.

Mr. DALBAVIE: In a certain way, if you can compare it to another thing, it's like looking at your skin with a microscope. So you go inside this microscope and you take out the structure you see in the microscope of your skin and you build another skin with that. It's going deeply into the beauty of the sound and you can, you can hear what the music exposes. It's like coming to the sound.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: Dalbavie's approach is not new. He's putting a modern spin on a technique that goes all the way back to Gregorian Chant and the polyphony of Renaissance motets. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, for whom Dalbavie wrote his Piano Concerto, says this is one of the things that sets Dalbavie apart from some other contemporary composers.

Mr. LEIF OVE ANDSNES (Pianist): He really knows so much music from the past. He will love music that you would think is very, very foreign to his tradition, like Strauss. I remember having a big discussion with him about the Richard Strauss, and he loves that orchestra music. He loves the colors and the excitement of it. I just think that's so great for that curiosity and that knowledge of the past.

Ms. GOODMAN: Maybe it has something to do with the way Marc-Andre Dalbavie composes. The 44-year-old retreats to a 15th century farmhouse in the French countryside.

Mr. DALBAVIE: I'm completely alone. Every doors are shut and the windows are shut also. And I really work everyday in this sort of isolation world.

Ms. GOODMAN: In the outside world, Dalbavie's world has found a receptive audience thanks to champions of new music like Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestra of Paris, where Eschenbach made Dalbavie composer in residence.

Mr. CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH (Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director): I think he's very special as a composer. He has a special language and I like that very much. I perform several times his Violin Concerto, which is also a masterpiece. I'm very, very attracted and fascinated by his music. I need to do it for my own satisfaction and to give it to the audiences.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Orchestra of Paris on the only recording of Dalbavie's music. His commitment to putting it in concern halls is a bit of an anomaly. Orchestras often squeeze a short contemporary work into a program of otherwise traditional repertoire.

GARY HANSON (Executive Director, Cleveland Orchestra): New music needs to be programmed in a way that makes it clear that you're proud of it.

GOODMAN: The Cleveland Orchestra's Executive Director Gary Hanson is proud to have commissioned several Dalbavie compositions. But the challenge remains of getting audiences to listen.

Mr. HANSON: Ever since the middle of the 20th century, the relationship between orchestra audiences and new music has been variable. In some cases negative. Younger audiences are much more eager and accepting of new music than our established audiences are, and since we do rely on our established audiences, there's often a sense that new music doesn't have a place on our programming. But it has a very important place in our programming.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: Dalbavie's music has been labeled accessible. He says that's not his goal. But he does think that earlier contemporary composers had made it difficult for audiences and even musicians to understand their work.

Mr. DALBAVIE: We had to analyze the score to really understand. And I thought it was a problem with music because with music you must really touch the perception, you must really touch the ears.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODMAN: Dalbavie insists he doesn't write for an audience. He says he composes for himself, to create something new. Of course he hopes audiences like his music. But he says they can interpret it anyway they want.

Mr. DALBAVIE: When you see a painting or when you hear music, you realize not one person will agree with another one. Each person find his own meaning. That's why I don't want the public to understand what really I wanted to do myself. That is my problem. And if they like the piece even with different way of hearing this piece and finding different meaning, I'm very happy if this piece could bring that to each one. The possibility to communicate something which is really open.

GOODMAN: Perhaps it's Marc-Andre Dalbavie's own open mindedness that comes through in his music and makes orchestras want to commission and perform it. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays his Piano Concerto later this week. For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman.

ELLIOTT: To hear more music from Marc-Andre Dalbavie, go to our website, NPR.org. That's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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