How American Are American Orchestras?

When one thinks of U.S. orchestras renowned for fostering new music, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra almost immediately pops to mind. USA Today summed it up best when it praised the ensemble as “a prototype for the performance of classical music in the 21st century.” Since 1970, the orchestra has commissioned 35 new works, won two ASCAP awards for adventuresome programming, had multi Grammy Award-winning recordings, some for new works.

The orchestra’s commitment to new, specifically American music increased substantially with the arrival in 1985 of David Zinman as musical director. His partnership with the orchestra almost immediately resulted in ASCAP programming awards, in part for his Discovery Series that introduced audiences to new works by 20th-century composers, with Zinman and others offering commentary about the works from the stage.

“David Zinman really made the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a haven for a new generation of American composers,” said orchestra spokesperson Gregory Tucker. In 1997, Zinman won the Columbia University Ditson Award for outstanding service to American music.

But anytime an individual has so much success with an orchestra, there are legitimate concerns over what would happen when he or she leaves. That’s exactly at issue now as Yuri Temirkanov replaces Zinman at the helm beginning with the 1999-2000 season. The main concern is that the conductor and music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, known for his work with the traditional and Russian repertory, will not maintain the support of new American music.

“We will continue the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tradition of commissioning new works,” said Tucker. “It’s just a little premature to try and indicate how much we end up doing. One of the things that enticed Temirkanov here was the opportunity to perform a variety of styles, not just the Russian repertory.”

Zinman had some help in putting the symphony on the map for new music in a person by the name of Christopher Rouse. Born in Baltimore, Rouse served as composer-in-residence from 1986-1989 and now is the orchestra’s consultant on new music. He dedicated his Symphony No. 1 to Zinman and the orchestra, and it subsequently won first prize in the Kennedy Center’s 1988 Friedheim Awards.

During a 12-day American Composers Showcase in 1991, the Baltimore Symphony launched “Live, Gifted and Black,” a joint project with the American Symphony Orchestra League devoted to exploring significant orchestral works by African-American composers. The program has featured performances of works by many composers including Rafael Aponte-Ledée, Ed Bland, Anthony Kelley, Gary Powell Nash, and Adolphus Hailstork.

The Baltimore Symphony’s commitment to contemporary music goes beyond the concert hall and into the recording studio as well. Their all-Rouse CD, recorded on Nonesuch as part of the Meet The Composer Orchestra Residencies recording series, was just the beginning. In 1990, the Symphony began recording with Argo/London in what became one of the most fruitful relationship of an orchestra and label in this decade. And fruitful especially to U.S. composers, as the design from the start was to “specifically to record American music,” to quote the orchestra’s website.

Michael Torke’s Color Music, a collection of five short orchestral works, was the first disc in 1991, followed by a Samuel Barber disc and an Aaron Copland disc. In 1995, Argo released the Baltimore Symphony’s controversial CD Dance Mix which featured Leonard Bernstein’s Mambo from the West Side Story Symphonic Dances plus ten brand-new short high-energy works by contemporary American composers: John Adams, Dominic Argento, Michael Daugherty, John Harbison, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Robert Moran, Christopher Rouse, David Schiff, and Michael Torke. Argo produced a disc of Charles Ives and then released Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony. A recording of Barber, Walton and Bloch, with violinist Joshua Bell followed that.

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