How American Are American Orchestras?

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) is a venerable institution boasting 103 years of existence, hundreds of recordings and a hall-of-fame list of past conductors including Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, André Previn and Lorin Maazel. The orchestra is now led by music director Mariss Jansons.

Commissions-wise, the PSO has a commendable record, with 35 commissioned since 1970. The bulk of these are from the 1990s, indicating a recent surge in commissions that is manifest in new works by Christopher Rouse and Michael Hersch to be premiered in the 1999-2000 season. The PSO is by no means on the front lines as a commissioning organization, but it gives healthy support to the new music scene in a way that is fiscally responsible. In other words, it provides good balance of the classics and of contemporary works, making it a good model for orchestras of its size to follow. Not every organization can or should be the American Composers Orchestra. Others need to find viable strategies for presenting new music while also performing the classics: an overdose of the former may eventually lead to bankruptcy and no music of any kind.

A recent highlight of the PSO’s commitment to American music occurred in 1984, when manager Marshall Turkin and music director Previn organized an American music festival. The program included Gershwin and a new commission by the PSO’s composer-in-residence John Harbison (“Ulysses’ Bow”). This “Festival of American Music” also included works by Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Roy Harris, and Raymond Premru. Gunther Schuller also participated as composer and conductor, leading his own music and that of others.

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