How American Are American Orchestras?

There is much to recommend about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) support for new music. Winner of the 1999 ASCAP/Morton Gould Award for innovative programming, the CSO has a history, especially over the last 30 years, of commissioning and premiering new music, and of creating and fostering programs that help composers or further new music.

Since 1970, the orchestra has commissioned 56 works, several for its 80th and centennial anniversaries (the CSO was founded in 1891). It has participated in the Meet the Composer program, shared in joint commissions with the New York Philharmonic, and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and has a Promising American Composer Fund, sponsored by Ernst & Young. The latter has produced five pieces to date, one by composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas. The orchestra estimates that three-quarters of the commissioned works are by U.S. composers.

While the CSO’s music director, Daniel Barenboim is no slouch when it comes to new music, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Pierre Boulez, is steeped in contemporary music. He himself has contributed significantly to it. Boulez comes to Chicago for an annual four-week residency that has “a heavy focus on music of the twentieth century,” said orchestra spokesperson Synneve Carlino.

In 1919, the music director at the time, Frederick Stock, founded the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the first training orchestra affiliated with a major U.S. orchestra, according to the CSO. This orchestra has had a great deal of success producing performers, but also compositions. Each year, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago holds a “First Hearing” composition competition. It is open to all composers, 35 years old or younger who were born in or study in the United States. Last year, principal preparatory conductor Cliff Colnot and Ms. Thomas helped to choose the winners from a pool of over 60 competitors. “Civic Orchestra concerts are one of the few places where the public can hear performances of orchestral music by promising young American composers,” states a CSO press release.

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