How American Are American Orchestras?

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has been decorated for its commitment to new, especially new American music, and with good reason. Since 1970, the orchestra has commissioned more than 90 new works, an amazing amount.

In the same time period, ASCAP has bestowed seven awards upon the SFS for adventuresome programming of contemporary music. And in 1997, the orchestra and music director Michael Tilson Thomas received the ASCAP John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.

Tilson Thomas’ dedication to American music has been bold. His first season with the SFS (1995-96) saw a work by an U.S. composer on nearly every program, and it was followed by “An American Festival,” a two-week celebration of American music. The orchestra calls it “one of the most far-reaching celebrations of American music ever heard in this country, spanning 250 years of American composers, performed by American artists.” A little public relations hyperbolizing, for sure, but it’s hard to argue with a event that presents composers and musicians as varied as John Adams, George Antheil, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Michael Daugherty, George Gershwin, Lou Harrison, Charles Ives, Steve Reich, Leonard Bernstein, Meredith Monk, and members of The Grateful Dead.

The SFS has had three significant composer residencies since 1970: In 1979, it appointed John Adams as New Music Advisor, which was changed to Composer-in-Residence in 1981 with the launch of Meet The Composer’s national Orchestra Residencies Program. He held that position until 1985, when Charles Wuorinen took the post and retained it until 1989. George Perle followed from 1989 till 1991.

Of additional note: The symphony has commissioned four works as part of the Meet The Composer program, seven works for its youth orchestra and seven for its resident chorus.

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

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