How American Are American Orchestras?

The Cleveland Chamber Symphony (CCS), a professional orchestra-in-residence at Cleveland State University, has steeped itself in new music from the beginning. Founded in 1980 by Edwin London, a composer and professor of music at the university, the CCS states its mission is “to commission, rehearse, perform, record and disseminate new music.” Other than the fact that we take for granted the ensemble rehearses pieces it will perform, this is a very compelling and ambitious mission statement, indeed.

The orchestra has definitely lived up to its promise. The CCS has won nine ASCAP awards, including one in 1999 and also including a remarkable three John S. Edwards Awards for strongest commitment to new American music, the society’s highest honor. In addition it has received a letter of distinction from the American Music Center in recognition of “significant contributions to the field of contemporary American music” and the Laurel Leaf Award given by the American Composers Alliance in recognition of “distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music.”

The orchestra acquired the awards the old fashioned way. The CCS has premiered 146 works, 85 commissioned by the CCS. Needless to say, this is a significantly large amount of new works to commission or premiere in the short span of 19 years. This ensemble is a beacon of light for the future of new, especially American music.

Furthermore, the CCS regularly offers repeat performances of new music, “often in multiple locations locally, regionally and nationally,” according to the orchestra. It is one thing to perform a singleton piece after several years; several orchestras do so with consistency. However, it is quite another thing to make it a bona fide practice and with many pieces. Most new works need several hearings beyond a world premiere to sink in and catch on (heck, this is even true of the classics), and this custom of the CCS helps achieve that.

To date, the CCS has released seven CD recordings, all featuring new music by American composers, the most recent of which — New American Scene II — features music by five African American composers: T.J. Anderson, David Baker, Leroy Jenkins, Wendell Logan, and Dolores White.

Finally, the CCS also supports a mentorship and reading program called “Emerging Composers.” Twice a year, the orchestra performs and records works by students of regional colleges and universities.

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