Yesterday I attended the Piano Trio Society's annual workshop day, where four young trios were coached by members of the fantastic Barbican Trio. Watching the trios undergo their masterclass was a bit of a masterclass for me too as a composer; it's always interesting to see performers talk about their interpretation of a piece (i.e. what they think they know about the composer and/or the music without the composer's knowledge!) The Barbican Trio players were each excellent teachers and communicators, and it was impressive (and sometimes amusing!) to watch them take on board suggestions and put them into practice.
I also gave a public interview with Christine Talbot-Cooper, the Society's extremely able administrator; she asked me about my own Piano Trio (being premiered by the Bedriska Trio on Sunday 26th November at Gloucester Cathedral) and about some general issues surrounding contemporary music.
One of the issues we discussed was the relationship of harmony and interpretation. During their coaching sessions, pianist James Kirby and cellist Robert Max talked about the importance of understanding harmony and key in order to be able to interpret phrase and form successfully. This is incontestably important, and undeniably true, if we're talking about playing Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms (as the Trios yesterday were). We learn about classical harmony as training performers (at music college or university etc.) and teachers continue to teach from this standpoint. There is nothing wrong with this and it is important that performers understand harmony. It was interesting that when James Kirby asked members of one Trio "What key is the music in now?" they were unable to answer. But if you're playing a Piano Trio written not in a traditional/classical major/minor key structure, and with all the rules of harmony and modulation that that implies, but in a harmonic language which is in any way different, you can't say to an ensemble "What is the key here?" or "What chord is this?" I feel that one of the reasons that performers don't perform as much contemporary music as I think they should is that they feel alienated before they even open a score of a modern piece. If all we teach about harmony is Mozart and his system of major and minor, young players will lack the necessary interpretive and analytical skills to approach any piece written using a different harmonic system. Ensembles often say that they don't play very much contemporary music because they don't have very much time to rehearse. By saying this, they are suggesting that they don't need to rehearse/learn Brahms or Haydn or Schubert too much, because they can already play it; it is how they were trained. It is therefore unsurprising (on the surface) that they say they can't perform much contemporary music due to lack of time, but in saying this they are also implying that any contemporary music is automatically more difficult to play than Beethoven or Brahms. This is not necessarily the case.
It is probably time that some of these issues are addressed more earnestly at our teaching institutions.