How American Are American Orchestras?

If we’ve learned anything in the last decade it’s the fact that it’s easier to find fault with something or someone that constantly dwells under the spotlight. It’s true in politics and it’s true in music. The New York Philharmonic, in its own wording, “has played a leading role in American musical life … since its founding in 1842.” It’s hard to argue with this statement, but it does allow us to scrutinize a little further and criticize a bit harsher the Philharmonic than we might other orchestras. What the Philharmonic does can profoundly influence the national music scene.

When you add it up, the New York Philharmonic would appear to have an admirable track record of commissioning. The orchestra has commissioned 75 works since 1970. But when you examine the commissions list of the ensemble, one word immediately and repeatedly jumps out: “none.” In no less than six separate seasons since 1970 the Philharmonic didn’t commission a single work. In addition to this, the decades of the ’70s and ’80s saw only on average two commissions a year, except for a flurry of works surrounding the U.S. Bicentennial. This is hardly the mark of a “leader in contemporary programming” as the Philharmonic calls itself on its Web site. The three music directors during this meager commissioning period were George Szell (1969-1970) Pierre Boulez (1971-1977) and Zubin Mehta (1978-1991).

Despite the meager commissions during these years, however, few events in the Philharmonic’s history have sparked more interest in new music than the ambitious 1984 Horizons Festival which was coordinated by then-composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman. Aside from premiering major orchestral works by composers ranging from George Crumb to Charles Wuorinen to Frederic Rzewski, the Festival’s celebration of musical diversity also extended to a number of smaller chamber music events. And while subscribers bolted for the doors upon hearing Diamanda Galas’s screams, a whole new audience discovered Avery Fisher Hall.

Things shifted with the hiring of Kurt Masur as music director in 1991. Although his tenure has seen the impressive performance of 40 commissioned works, Masur’s “back to basics” strategy for bringing the Philharmonic back to their former glory was 180 degrees away from adventurous programming. And while as a general rule the Philharmonic commissioned more in the nineties per season (there is a dipping down to only two in 1995-96), most were premiered by guest conductors. On its most recent American tour with Kurt Masur, the orchestra did not perform a single American work prompting comments from many prominent music critics around the country. The New York Times reported Masur’s response as: “Why play American music in America? Why be so provincial? We always play American music when we tour Europe.” But the he reality is that under Masur, the New York H’un (Lacerations) and Ned Rorem’s English Horn Concerto. This season, however, he will be conducting all the premieres including choral symphonies by Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke commissioned by Walt Disney.

Most of the commissions in the past decade resulted from the festivities surrounding the orchestra’s 150th anniversary. For the sesquicentennial the orchestra commissioned 36 composers, in what the Philharmonic calls “perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of its kind.” This was indeed a massive project and the orchestra deserves credit for it.

With an annual operating budget of more than $35 million, the Philharmonic could still afford to commission more works. But one thing this money can buy is quality, or better said, name value of the composers. If the Philharmonic had a dearth of commissions in earlier decades, the composers engaged during this time were top notch. Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, David Del Tredici, Morton Subotnick, Michael Colgrass, Vincent Persichetti, John Corigliano, Jacob Druckman, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, Ravi Shankar, George Crumb, Gunther Schuller, George Rochberg and Morton Feldman head that group. It amounts to a who’s who of composition in the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s the story hardly varies as Olivier Messiaen, William Bolcom, Chistopher Rouse, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Michael Torke, Bernard Rands, Joan Tower, Ned Rorem, Alfred Schnittke, Stephen Paulus, Aaron Jay Kernis, Stephen Albert, Toru Takemitsu, Richard Danielpour, Bright Sheng, George Perle, Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho, Tan Dun and Wynton Marsalis are among those commissioned. In all three decades there is a leaning toward American composers, but not a decisive one.

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