How American Are American Orchestras?

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) is a unique institution in this country in that it is the only full-time chamber orchestra in the U.S. and that it is a smaller ensemble that operates with a yearly budget in the top tier nationally (defined by ASCAP as exceeding 10.8 million). The orchestra certainly does have the funds to commission works and this has been and continues to be the case. Although the SPCO experienced financial difficulties threatening its very existence in the early ’90s, it has commissioned 74 works since 1970, a sizable number. In 1999, the orchestra won a second-place ASCAP award for programming of contemporary music for orchestras in its budget tier. The SPCO gave its first performance in Nov. 1959, and therefore did not commission much prior to 1970 (just six pieces).

Like its orchestral sibling across the Mississippi River, the Minnesota Orchestra, the SPCO has had a healthy relationship over the years with the Minnesota, now American Composers Forum. According to SPCO librarian Jim Kortz, there was a period under the leadership of Pinchas Zuckerman that the SPCO and ACF collaborated to offer once-a-year concerts to read composer’s works.

This association with ACF reflects the SPCO’s general commitment to American music as all but a handful of the commissioned works since 1970 are from the pens of U.S. composers. Aaron Jay Kernis, who served as composer-in-residence with the SPCO from 1993-1996, has produced four works and one arrangement under commission, with a fifth due in spring of 2000. Michael Torke (“Lucent Variations” and “Ash”), John Harbison (concertos for flute and viola) and Christopher Rouse (“Iscariot”) are among the many significant composers commissioned by the SPCO in recent years.

One curious aspect of the orchestra’s commissioning legacy is the number of arrangements of extant works. The ensemble has commissioned four such works, including Erik Stokes’ “Prophet Bird” arrangement of piano works by Robert Schumann. In addition to this, the orchestra has given world premieres of six such arrangements not commissioned by itself, ranging from Janacek to Debussy. This reflects, more than anything, the desire to expand the repertory of the group to include works not originally intended for chamber-sized orchestras. In the words of Kortz, the SPCO wishes to, “expand the chamber music repertory into the later centuries,” which is done as much with new original works as with new arrangements of old pieces.

Along the same lines are four works jointly commissioned with other organizations. Jacob Druckman’s “Nor Spell Nor Charm” was jointly commissioned by the SPCO, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Libby Larson’s “Weaver’s Song and Jig” began as a joint commission between the SPCO and Garrison Keillor’s radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” A consortium helped with the funding and also helped insure that the work would be performed more than once,” said Kortz.

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

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