Tag: orchestra programming

Help Me Help You: What Orchestra Managements Need from the New Music Community

In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.


As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?

Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.

In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.

Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.

Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.

Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.


As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.

Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.

Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?

In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo's Red Inner Light Sculpture

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO

There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.

A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.

The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.

And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?

So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”

But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.

How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO

Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)

Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.

Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.

It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.

Lift Every Orchestral Voice

[Ed. Note: When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announced its 2018-19 season last month, music critic Alex Ross immediately noticed that the repertoire for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was written exclusively by living female composers except for one lone piece by the late Morton Feldman. Since then, Ross’s tweet about it was retweeted 40 times. Granted it is only two concerts, but it was a welcome piece of news, especially after several major American orchestras had announced 2018-19 seasons that did not include a single work by a female composer. Thankfully, the season announcements by the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics that soon followed proved to be more equitable. Still, all these announcements drove home the message that the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity. Composer Derek Bermel, who is currently ACO’s artistic director, has long been an articulate advocate for more pluralistic musical aesthetics and the ACO has a 40+ year track record for advocating for offering performance opportunities to an extremely broad range of composers. Given his stance and his position, we thought that Bermel would have some interesting insights into how orchestras could make their programming more diverse.—FJO]

An intro

“One day I’ll jump. Out of my skin. I’ll shake the sky like a hundred violins.” – Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The American Composers Orchestra’s next season of concerts at Carnegie Hall has attracted some attention because most of the composers represented are women. The truth is that we just programmed good music, and most of the composers turned out to be female. It’s not that we didn’t notice, but we didn’t sound the trumpets. ACO has a long history of programming works composed by women—well over two hundred in 40 years—so statistically next season is not such an anomaly. The mission of our orchestra frees us to dream, because we’re not required to program the “canon.” And our vision statement includes a commitment to the three Ds, “diversity, disruption and discovery,” which all point toward wider gender representation.

As a white, male composer, it’s not without trepidation that I grapple with the topic of diversity in the orchestral world; my demographic cohorts have been the main beneficiaries of the status quo since the first dissonances clanged forth. But access is a subject about which I care deeply, and my position at ACO gives me a glimpse into a quite conservative world, albeit at an institution that tries to work against the grain. So this essay is written in the spirit of shedding light on the murky process of programming and how it might be reoriented to serve shared values. I hope that these thoughts, rather than attempting to signify some kind of “woke” status, can help stimulate more discussion, within our field and beyond.

There but for the grace of God go I

Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception.

The word diversity gets bandied around a lot, and in today’s ultra-partisan environment it has incurred political baggage. But the etymological root, the Latin diversus or “difference,” is a perfect fit for creative artists, who tend to depart from the norm (usually to a high degree)! For me the word resonates most brilliantly in the broadest possible context: referring to artistic imperatives—including style, process, technique, and genre—but also to personal attributes like gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age, and geographic distribution. Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception, interwoven with our history and our sociology, and I am convinced that it’s the source of our strength.

My dad was a European Jew who lived through World War II, and my mom was born in New York City during the Great Depression. Both my parents were raised by single mothers. My brother and I had a childhood that was less scrappy, but our upbringing was shaped by an outlook that nothing could be taken for granted. We were lucky to grow up in a community of peers hailing from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. There certainly were challenges, and I saw the ugliness of bigotry and racism up-close, but it was always clear to me that achieving and sustaining diversity was possible with dialogue and persistence.

Around the time I attended college, I began to notice and understand more about privilege. At the time I didn’t use that term, but it’s the best word to describe the entitlement that I encountered, in even mundane interactions. At first I saw privilege uniquely as a consequence of wealth, only later recognizing that it also encompassed other qualities, some of which I possessed by virtue of simply being me.

It’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck.

The tricky thing about privilege is that there’s always someone at whom we can point who seems to be more privileged than we are. And it’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck, so we may easily believe that we’re not the fortunate ones. All this is to say that I miss the diverse and tolerant community from which I emerged, and I am aware that rediscovering that sensibility is partly my own responsibility. Therefore I seek to apply it in music, feeling strongly that the best of human experience is not found in sameness.

No country for new music

Since the 20th century, one aspect of American orchestral programming has been pretty consistent: living composers are sidelined. Less new music begets less diversity on all levels. This truth is painfully self-evident at orchestral concerts, especially with respect to equity and inclusion (also variety of musical style, but that would require a whole separate discussion!). Even when contemporary music does appear on a program, the percentages of work by women and composers of color are infinitesimal.

Living composers are sidelined.

I’ve spoken to several artistic administrators and conductors who insist that their audiences aren’t asking for more of the new; their internal research shows that their audience wants to hear what they already know. When I hear that argument, I think, “Well, of course! Audiences haven’t experienced what they don’t know, so how could they possibly be clamoring for it?” One of the responsibilities of curators is to introduce the public to work they didn’t know existed or to help bring it into being. Five years ago, how many regular music theater patrons were yearning to see a hip-hop musical? We all know that answer: very, very few. Today it’s impossible to get tickets for Hamilton. Some of that audience is coming from outside the typical music theater audience; all the better!

Much frustration is being vented at larger classical music institutions, whose very traditional programs are coming under increased scrutiny from the press and on social media. Some foundations and philanthropists are also showing signs of restlessness, especially in light of declining attendance. In response, within artistic and executive management there has been a great deal of discussion about the canon, and what steps orchestras might take to imagine a new, more inclusive repertoire as a path toward achieving longevity. Many are actively seeking solutions to the lack of ethnic and gender diversity as it relates to both performers and repertoire.

Large institutions can take years to change direction, however, and for change to be lasting it must be embraced by the board and identified in the organization’s mission statement. Then a process has to be created to achieve those objectives. Some non-profit entities have developed clear language to help bring their mission in line with the kind of inclusive world they would like to see.

Embedding a composer

I’ve noticed that the relatively small step of embedding a composer in the administration not only helps the organization to address the “canon” issue, it can also lay the groundwork for solving questions of relevance in the community. A case in point is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where longstanding curatorial and advisory relationships with living composers have helped the orchestra stay vibrant in its programming. Next season’s impressive centennial commissions feature a diverse mix of old and new voices; rather than marginalizing or apologizing for the presence of contemporary composers, it boldly highlights living music. This would likely never have happened without a tradition that included the composer-advisor as an essential component in the organization; and while this decision may alienate a few audience members, it encourages the rest to enjoy new perspectives. The LA Phil’s mission, after all, is “to perform, present, and promote music in its varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a diverse and large audience.”

Embedding a composer in the administration lays the groundwork for solving questions of relevance.

A peek at the Seattle Symphony’s next season demonstrates a similar commitment to a diverse range of composers, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, country of origin, and style. It’s probably not a coincidence that this orchestra also enjoys a long history of working with composers-in-residence; the most recent is Alexandra Gardner. Other smaller orchestras—Albany, Alabama, Princeton, to name a few—perform a healthy percentage of new work in their seasons. And, as a bonus, commissioning diverse, contemporary composers renders the orchestras immediately more attractive to foundations, government, and potential new audience members.

I often reflect on the fact that 90 years ago orchestras were all-male, in response to which concerted efforts were made to open up access to women. The Sphinx Organization is attempting to offer equality of opportunity to two of the most underrepresented groups in America—African-American and Latinx musicians. Why not strive for similar access among composers? Let’s not kid ourselves; in America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry. Within a population of more than 100 million Asians, Latinx, African-Americans, and Native Americans, the country is merely facing a crisis of vision and will.

In America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry.

It’s precisely for this reason that affirmative action came into being. ACO’s President Ed Yim articulated it this way: “The goal is to make the pool of opportunities bigger so that gender and ethnic parity does not mean fewer slots for anyone. Quality and parity are not opposing forces.” In our field, this necessitates a fresh approach to artistic planning: a commitment to listen to a great deal of music that may be unfamiliar and to investigate new pathways to find that music. It demands a deeper engagement than simply programming what a few powerful publishers, public relations firms, or journalists promote.

Nevertheless, they persist…

Every month multiple articles dramatically sound the death-knell of either orchestral music or classical music in general. Yet composers blithely or wantonly continue to ignore these dire pronouncements, producing more orchestral music than ever. Each year ACO receives hundreds of scores for the Underwood New Music Readings as well as the Earshot Network Readings hosted at orchestras across the country, and that’s one way we learn about the multitude of emerging voices. Some of our mentors and advisors have also helped establish major programming initiatives, including themes centered on diversity. As an example: about 20 years ago ACO decided that it needed to do more for Latinx composers and launched Sonidos de las Américas, delving into Latin American orchestral music by focusing on a different region each year. It was composer and conductor Tania León who navigated the orchestra through six seasons of existing revolutionary repertoire as well as commissions from composers from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico—some from a concert music tradition, some fluent in Latin music, jazz, and other genres.

A second example: When I became involved with the orchestra, we were in the early stages of formulating the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Composers from a background in jazz (and other Afrological musics)—with profound and distinctive sensibilities in harmony, counterpoint, texture, rhythm, and form—were largely missing from American concert music in general, and notably from symphonic music. Composer and musicologist George Lewis helped conceive of and foster the program we continue today, mentoring jazz composers and facilitating readings and performances of their orchestral work. These programs are just the tip of the iceberg, both designed with an eye toward more inclusion, equity, and diversity of creative voices.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past. Wynton Marsalis has championed and promoted Duke Ellington’s entire catalog, including many lesser-known compositions. Trevor Weston created a critical edition of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from surviving manuscripts. Mary Lane Leach painstakingly gathered and documented Julius Eastman’s scattered catalog. The quartet of Marylou Williams, T.J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and William Bolcom were integral in bringing Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha to life.

A catalyst for change

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Of course not everything that ACO commissions and performs will become part of the “canon” of the future. But over 40 years, a legacy of commissioning—more than 350 works by a diverse range of composers—has added substantially to the repertoire. And more recently we have partnered with the League of American Orchestras and the Toulmin Foundation to commission women composers. In this way we hope to be a catalyst for change. ACO is currently loading all our past concerts and readings onto a database accessible from our site, another resource for interested parties.

In the present day, our most profound contribution may be as a prototype. Many forward-looking conductors and orchestra administrators seek advice from us on a regular basis: Whom might they commission? Could we help them design an American music festival? How can they host a reading for young composers, local composers, composer/performers, African-American composers, electronic-music composers, LGBTQ composers, jazz composers, film composers, women composers, and so on?

And of course beyond ACO a whole host of other institutions can help in this quest: orchestras devoted to new repertoire, such as BMOP and the Chicago Composers Orchestra; service institutions for contemporary music, such as ASCAP, BMI, the League of American Orchestras, the American Composers Forum, Composers Now, and New Music USA; university archives like Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) assembled by the visionary Vivian Perlis, the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University founded by Juan Orrego-Salas, or the recently unveiled Women Composers Database compiled by Rob Deemer at SUNY Fredonia.  This list just scratches the surface.

Bird’s eye view

We composers are not alone. There are similar systemic imbalances present in other performing arts organizations and in the pipelines to these organizations. In music education, huge gulfs exist in access to quality instruction, role models, instruments, and resources; these deficits dramatically skew the pool of creators, performers, and administrators who emerge. In any comprehensive discussion of marginalization and access, involving the next generation’s widest possible pool is a vital component.

“Stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.”

Those who truly love discovering new orchestral voices may find the task invigorating and rejuvenating. I once attended a lecture by the public interest lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, who defends many death row inmates. He advised people in the audience to “stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.” I found that statement to be oddly comforting and inspiring as a way to move forward in society to effect positive change. It’s also a powerful motto for making art.

American Repertoire Spring

Reverse Flag

Reversing the ratio of American music to standard repertoire is long overdue in the programming of most American orchestras but I’ve recently been noticing a health change in direction.

Back in October 2005, I attended a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall, ostensibly to hear them play Chen Yi’s Si Ji (The Four Seasons), a New York premiere. I was very glad to have been there since the piece would later be one of the three finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and sometimes it takes years for finalists and even winners to get the recognized works released on commercial recordings. Often if you don’t get to hear it live at its premiere (or in this case, an additional performance during a tour), you’re out of luck for quite a while.

However, I also remember being really annoyed at having to sit through a performance of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 following the intermission. (Unless I’m running off to another premiere, I never leave a concert during intermission.) Now, don’t get me wrong; Brahms’s First ranks very high in my personal musical pantheon. I have multiple recordings of it at home, as well as a score which I’ve studied in depth. Back when I was a high school student, I even contemplated composing an electronic “symphony” that would conclude with variations on the famous theme from the fourth movement (though admittedly it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since that theme was the melody for my high school’s school song). In fact, now that I’m in my late 40s, Brahms continues to be a source of inspiration to me since he didn’t complete the piece until he was 43 years old—a beacon of hope for those of us who still haven’t penned our first symphony.

So the reason I was frustrated by that Cleveland performance had nothing to do with Brahms’s music. Rather it was because I had just sat through a really tremendous live performance of Brahms’s First just 48 hours earlier done by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of guest conductor Marin Alsop only a few blocks north of Carnegie at Lincoln Center. (I was at that concert to hear a piece by James MacMillan.) With all the amazing repertoire that is out there and the fact that so little of it gets done, I was incensed that the two most prominent presenters of orchestral music in New York City would have scheduled the same piece in such close proximity; it seemed a real waste of precious resources despite my fondness for that particular symphony.

Ironically, this season I have experienced several “repeat performances” of works, and those have made me very happy. For me, one of the highlights of the 2013 Spring for Music (I attended five of the six concerts) was hearing the Detroit Symphony, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, play all four of Ives’s numbered symphonies back to back. Yet, less than a month ago, I had heard a performance of Ives’s Fourth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Alan Gilbert. Admittedly, though I deeply admire Brahms’s First, I worship Ives’s Fourth and never tire of hearing it. But part of that, I think, is because it is so rarely performed.

In an even weirder twist of fate, earlier this month at the Cleveland Museum of Art I participated in a live performance of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia extravaganza HPSCHD , a piece that gets done with even less frequency than Ives’s Fourth, and as a result I missed the concurrent performance of the piece in New York City. However, I heard the Cleveland Orchestra led by James Feddeck perform John Adams’s Shaker Loops in Cleveland on May 1 and merely three days later I heard Marin Alsop lead the Baltimore Symphony in a performance of the same piece at Carnegie Hall on May 4—one of the same orchestras, conductors, and venues involved with my Brahms’s First double dosage from eight years ago. Again, both of these repertoire reduxes made me happy rather than annoyed.

So, did I change my outlook about multiple performances in the intervening years? No. Is it rather that I am overly nationalistic and therefore am looking the other way when the piece getting the multiple performances is American repertoire? Ah, guilty as charged! The only way that any music created on our own soil will ever be able to compete with the standard repertoire—both in terms of audience devotion to it and the high level at which it is regularly performed—is for our own music to be programmed more frequently. And, at least from what I’m gleaning from my experiences thus far this year, that seems to be starting to happen.
Like the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Arab Spring that began in 2010, we seem to have entered a kind of—allow me the indulgence—“American Repertoire Spring.” But let’s hope that unlike what happened in Czechoslovakia (an eventual clamp down and a return to the prior status quo) or what is happening in the Middle East (perhaps too soon to tell but seemingly more unrest and violence than greater freedoms for more people), this long overdue, regularly occurring embrace of music by compatriots at some of our nation’s larger cultural institutions (something you would think would have always been the case but bizarrely has not) will hopefully continue and will flourish. At every performance I attended, the audiences appeared to be ecstatic. It seems obvious that to put our own musical achievements at the forefront of what gets presented at the major venues could only serve to get a greater number of people in this country interested in going to these venues.

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that, to my ears at least, the most extraordinarily performed concert of the entire week of Spring for Music programs seemed to be the final concert performed by Washington, D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach and that concert did not feature a single piece of American music. A tribute to Rostropovich, who served as the NSO’s music director from 1977 to 1994, the program was 100% Soviet repertoire—Slava, Slava by Rodion Shchedrin (albeit a work commissioned and premiered by the NSO), Shostakovich’s triumphant Fifth Symphony (allegedly a favorite of Stalin’s), and Alfred Schnittke’s amazing Viola Concerto, which my friend Jack Sullivan quipped afterwards sounded like a nervous breakdown set to music.

Here’s another bizarre programming twist: Of the five Spring for Music concerts I heard, two were all-American—the Ives immersion and the Albany Symphony’s program of Harbison, Gershwin, and Morton Gould’s formidable Third Symphony (a real discovery). Another two were all-Soviet—the aforementioned NSO gig and the Buffalo Phil which played Giya Kancheli’s hauntingly beautiful Morning Prayers followed by the epic Ilya Muromets by Reinhold Glière. (Admittedly the 1911 Ilya Muromets is pre-Soviet, but Glière remained in the USSR after the Bolshevik Revolution up until his death in 1956 and this piece has not really had much of a life outside of the Eastern Bloc.) Marin Alsop’s Baltimore program was half-Soviet (an incredible performance of the revised and expanded version of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony) and half-American (the Shaker Loops I mentioned above and a New York premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s concerto for the quasi-bluegrass trio Time for Three). All in all, this means that the repertoire for 5/6th of the proceedings were equally divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. (The program I missed breaks the paradigm. Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins was composed before he relocated to the USA, so is therefore not claimable as American repertoire. There were two works by Rachmaninoff—who, though admittedly Russian, had fled the Soviet Union and eventually emigrated to the United States—but since both of these works were composed long before his exile, they also cannot be claimed as American. And finally La Valse by French composer Maurice Ravel, which seems like a total red herring on this list.)

Anyway, as musically wonderful as the NSO’s performance was (and it really was), it seemed somewhat anticlimactic to me to present it after the DSO’s Ives bonanza. I kept wondering what someone outside our community would make of a program that offered absolutely no acknowledgement of music created in this country by an orchestra based in our nation’s capital that is named the “National Symphony Orchestra.” Clearly the American Repertoire Spring still has a long way to go.

Chasing Diversity

Many years ago I remember John Corigliano giving a speech in which he decried classical music’s constant recycling of standard repertoire warhorses and the classical music cognoscenti who catalog the minutiae of interpretive deviations. He compared such people to wine snobs who spent all their time contrasting various vintages of high-end bottlings of the same wine grapes year after year.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten very serious about wine drinking, but I’ve taken it from a slightly different angle. Rather than compare first growth Bordeaux or Burgundy (which I can’t afford to do anyway), I set myself a goal of trying as many different wine grapes as possible. I’m always on the lookout for something I’ve never tried before, whether I ultimately like it or not. It’s basically a new music approach to wine, and it’s been a fascinating ride.

Wine Tasting

People at City Winery enjoying many different interpretations of syrah.

Last week, my wife Trudy and I trudged through the snow storm to a wine tasting at City Winery where we managed to sample about 40 of the wines being offered that night. (There were over 100 in all.) Though sadly there were no new grapes for us, there were many new wineries. And there was a ton of Syrah. A great grape, but it was like going to hear a bunch of fabulous chamber musicians we’d never heard before play through our favorite pieces of Debussy and Ravel—admittedly wonderful music, but ultimately nothing new. Don’t get me wrong. We had a fabulous time and tried some really excellent wines. I was particularly thrilled that among the participants were wineries from Virginia, a great wine producing region that deserves to be better-known, and New York State, whose wines are surprisingly not so easy to come by even for folks who live here. And we did have one somewhat unusual encounter: a 100% Counoise made by Tablas Creek from Paso Robles. It was only the second all-Counoise I’d ever tried, and the first one made in the United States. It was wonderful in the same way as listening to, say, pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin play the music of Abel Decaux—something you don’t get to hear very often.

On Friday, the League of American Orchestras issued its 2012-2013 Premieres List. Every year for the past 30 years, the League has sent out a query to its member orchestras requesting information about repertoire being performed that is either a world or national premiere. (The membership encompasses both the United States and Canada.) Though only 68 orchestras responded to the League’s survey (which is only approximately 9% percent of their total membership) and undoubtedly some of the orchestras who did not report have also scheduled premieres, the list still offers much to ponder. It is thrilling to learn that 165 pieces will be played in North America for the first time this season from the pens (or laptops) of 150 different composers. Only 17 composers are represented more than once. Mason Bates has the distinction of receiving four orchestral premieres this season! And the premieres are spread around pretty broadly, though the Toronto Symphony puts the rest of North America to shame with its 13 premieres this season. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra are tied for second place with 9 each.)

But that’s where the thrill ends. Remember that premieres account for only a small amount of the music that is programmed by orchestras. Not knowing what the numbers are for the other 92% of the League’s membership it’s hard to pass a judgment, but its doubtful that anyone not on the list is trumping Toronto. While its 13 premieres are laudable, they still account for a very small percentage of music played by the orchestra. On top of that, the list highlighted the fact that 14% of the works being premiered at orchestras this season are by women composers. While that might be cause for celebration in some quarters (it’s a higher number than I expected), that means that 86% of the premieres are not by women composers and it’s doubtful that the rest of the repertoire being performed beyond those premieres includes much if any music by women composers or very many other living composers, male or female for that matter.

Ultimately, to paraphrase Corigliano, it’s just a lot of syrah—really wonderful, but it would be more exciting to have a greater variety.