How American Are American Orchestras?

In the early part of this century, Minnesota Orchestra commissions were not always formalized. The orchestra describes many of the works premiered as “of the type ‘you compose us a piece meeting certain requirements and we’ll play it;’ several such works were premiered by Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was known to encourage composers in this way.”

But by the decade of the ’70s, documentation is more abundant. So are the commissions, whose number rises after 1970. Prior to 1970, the orchestra or its music director commissioned 61 works; after that date, the number is 72, plus 19 short pieces to honor conductor David Zinman on his 60th birthday. Zinman served as the third artistic director of the orchestra’s Viennese Sommerfest (its summer music festival).

The bulk of the commissioned composers are American. Of particular note is the Minnesota Orchestra’s relationship with the American Composers Forum (ACF). The orchestra worked in conjunction with the St. Paul-based ACF twice in the 1980s, when the organization was called the Minnesota Composers Forum. A 1981 program grant from the ACF produced Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; a 1984 grant enabled funds for the commissioning of Lloyd Ultan’s Violin Concerto. (Skrowaczewski was music director of the orchestra from 1960 to 1979.) The orchestra also has a history of sticking close to home by commissioning composers either born, raised or living in the Minnesota, including Stephen Paulus (5), Libby Larson (9) and Dominick Argento (6). The organization relied on Argento so often that it named him its composer laureate in 1997.

The orchestra also has commissioned two pieces as part of the Meet the Composer program: Charles Wuorinen’s “Genesis” and Stephen Paulus’ “Voices.” It has also commissioned three works from Aaron Jay Kernis, the orchestra’s new music advisor.

In 1998, the orchestra began its Centennial Commissions, an ongoing series of commissions planned over a ten-year period from 1998-2008 to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2003. To date, the orchestra has commissioned 10 works for this purpose, six of which have been premiered.

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