How American Are American Orchestras?

Quite possibly the most ambitious and overachieving freelance orchestra in the nation, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has had a fascinating history with new music. Founded in 1954 as the Brooklyn Philharmonia, its founder and first conductor Siegfried Landau gave premieres of pieces by Roy Harris and Alan Hovhaness. The eminent composer and new-music champion Lukas Foss further stamped the mark of contemporary music interpreters upon the ensemble when he succeeded Landau, programming a great deal of American music and creating a “Meet the Moderns” concert series that focused on 20th-century composers. The orchestra assumed its present name in 1982 and in 1991 another new-music advocate Dennis Russell Davies took over as principal conductor, with the orchestra now part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 1996, Robert Spano became principal conductor of the orchestra — by most accounts invigorating its performances – and continuing an emphasis on new music. But two years later the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced it was in debt, a financial situation that has not totally been rectified.

The financial straits have halted the commissioning of new works (none have been commissioned since 1996). But the orchestra’s bold programming has continued, and this year ASCAP recognized the effort by presenting the Philharmonic with a first-place award for the programming of contemporary music. The orchestra’s 1999-2000 season continues the modern leanings with a survey of the 20th century.

The commissioning legacy of the Philharmonic is best understood within this larger history. The orchestra began commissioning works in 1983 with David Frost’s “A Little Street Music” and has commissioned mostly American works (all but one, in fact) leading to Michael Tenzer’s 1996 composition “Sources of Current.” In total, the orchestra has commissioned 48 works. This many works in a slightly over a decade is a tremendous amount of commissions, especially for a freelance orchestra with a smaller annual operating budget.

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