How American Are American Orchestras?

If there were a triple crown of contemporary music — commissioning, premiering and performing it — the Louisville Orchestra would have won it many times. The orchestra, founded in 1937, collects ASCAP awards as if they were a staple of life. This year, ASCAP awarded the ensemble first place in the category recognizing the programming of contemporary music (for organizations with an annual budget between $4 to $10.8 million). It marks the 16th time that the orchestra has received such an award. And keep in mind that ASCAP first presented the awards only 40 years ago.

Two series helped the Louisville Orchestra win the award in 1999. A “Masterworks Series” didn’t stick to the canonic masterpieces, as is usually the case for concerts named that way. It instead included works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Dan Locklair. Also, a “New Dimensions Series” featured works by Michael Daugherty, David Dzubay and Witold Lutoslawski.

Actually, had ASCAP given out awards in the early ’50s, the Louisville Orchestra would have won even more due to its amazing string of recordings and commissions that decade. In 1953, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation provided the orchestra the means to found First Edition Records. This was an extraordinary grant for an orchestra and music director Robert Whitney made sure the label reached its potential. Over the next two decades, “the orchestra record several hundred newly commissioned works by more than 250 composers,” according to former Smithsonian producer Matt Walters, with most of the works commissioned by the ensemble itself.

In the beginning the majority of the recordings featured opuses by living composers, over three-fourths of them American. But gradually, the orchestra began to mix in non-commissioned recordings of 20th-century music by composers such as Charles Ives to complement the newer works. All told, the label established the Louisville Orchestra’s national reputation as “The American orchestra for American music,” said Walters.

Since the 1970s, the pace of new recordings and new commissions has dropped off quite a bit, with less than 20 new pieces commissioned. But the future looks bright once again. Walters hopes to be a part of that change. His private business, Santa Fe Music Group, is finalizing plans to partner with the orchestra to revive First Edition Records. The plan is to re-issue onto CD the label’s extensive catalogue of recordings still available only on vinyl LP and also do new recordings with the orchestra, some of newly commissioned works by the ensemble.

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