Though it’s been awarded since 1959, you may not have heard of a composer honor that’s been given annually by a small orchestra in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The winners’ list includes a number of major artists—and the 2004 award sees Bernard Rands‘ name added to the list.
There is no application or nomination process for the composer award. In fact, it’s less an award in the traditional “here’s your check” sense and more of an institutionalized way for the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra to feature one American composer every year. The recognized composer receives a performance of his or her work, travel expenses, and an engraved presentation watch historically contributed by the originally Lancaster-based Hamilton Watch Company. Though the watch company is no longer located in the area, the orchestra continues to make the watch presentation.
Here’s how it works: The music director traditionally suggests up to ten composers work that he feels would fit well within the confines of the planned season program. A music committee made up of board and non-board members then listens to CDs, reads bios, and there’s “lots of hashing over of opinions and ideas,” says Patricia Otto, the orchestra’s development director. When they get down to three, the committee votes. The winning composer must be available to attend the performance (his or her piece will be included on a regular season concert) and to speak about his or her work to accept the award.
In this way, the small-budget orchestra (they reached the $1 million mark just this year) which gives five season concerts plus three more of the pops variety, hopes to not only generate interest in a specific composer, but “also a more appreciative hearing of all modern music.”
Otto says the weekend the composer is in town has the air of a presidential visit, with people vying for the chance to take the composer to lunch. Since the composer’s music has generally not been heard before it is performed, it does happen that people love the composer and then end up not liking the music but that, she says, is all par for the course. As an orchestra employee, former board member, and concert attendee, Otto says she’d call it the highlight of the season.
Howard Hansen was the first to receive the award in 1959. Kenneth Bates, then president of the orchestra’s board, housed the visiting composers in the early years of the award at his home and hosted the post-concert reception. According to an article in the county’s historical record, Bates described the program’s mission as a “way the composer would be identified as a person to the audience, and his music would become a living example of the current work in the musical field.”
Though at a pace of one a year, the LSO’s audience could not possibly keep abreast of all that is happening in the music field, learning about the work of one new composer every year is likely more than most of the nation’s symphony subscribers.