How American Are American Orchestras?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAP) took first place in this year’s ASCAP awards for programming of contemporary music for orchestras with annual operating expenses of more than $10.8 million. The orchestra certainly programmed an impressive amount of new music (25 pieces), but it did little to actually commission new works (only two). But this is in keeping with the Philharmonic’s commissioning history, which can be described as steady, but unspectacular. Since 1970, the orchestra has essentially commissioned one or two works a year. This consistency (uncommon among orchestras) in its commissioning and its programming of new music has helped it win 16 ASCAP awards over the years. But the total commissions over this period, 34, while certainly nothing to sneeze at, don’t stack up to the orchestras with the best record in that budget tier. Of this group, 33 are U.S. Composers.

One major factor in the orchestra’s favor is its New Music Group. This smaller ensemble designed for the performance of contemporary music was the ultimate recipient of 11 of the Philharmonic’s commissions since 1970. The New Music Group received the 1996 Laurel Leaf Award of the American Composers Alliance, recognizing its role as a supporter of new music. Many of its performances are part of the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series, concerts that are “devoted exclusively to compositions on the cutting edge of the repertoire and [which] attract leading composers and performers of contemporary music,” according to the LAP.

William Kraft, John Harbison and Steven Stucky have all served as composers in residence with the Philharmonic. Stucky is now the orchestra’s New Music Advisor.

Of course, in the pursuit of new music, nothing helps more than when an orchestra’s conductor is also a composer. It’s true of Pierre Boulez, and it’s true of the Philharmonic’s current music director Esa-Pekka Salonen whose combination of a successful career and a firm commitment to the music of our time is proof once-and-for-all that new music need not be box office poison. Born in 1958 in Helsinki, Salonen originally thought of himself as a composer who would occasionally conduct, but now is very much a full time conductor who tries to find time for writing in his busy schedule. As you might expect, the Philharmonic has become a platform for Salonen’s newest works. His “L.A. Variations,” commissioned by the orchestra, received its world premiere in January 1997, while “Gambit” had an American premiere in the 1998-99 season. Most recently Salonen and the Philharmonic premiered his “Five Images After Sappho.”

From How American Are American Orchestras?
by Andrew J. Druckenbrod
© 1999 NewMusicBox