How American Are American Orchestras?

Founded in 1918 by Russian-American conductor Nikolai Sokoloff, the Cleveland Orchestra has had over three quarters of a century of music-making, some of it the best America has offered. The ensemble also has a good record for premiering new works, approximately 200 since its inception. But it has not directed its focus toward commissioned works with as great of enthusiasm. Prior to 1970, which includes the entire tenure of George Szell (music director, 1946-1970), the organization commissioned only 20 new works, the bulk of them for the orchestra’s 40th and 50th anniversaries.

Since 1970, however, 24 works have been commissioned including Elliott Carter’s Allegro Scorrevole, Christopher Rouse’s Percussion Concerto (Das gerettete Alberich), Donald Erb’s Evensong, Alvin Singleton’s Durch Alles, and Stephen Paulus’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. This changing focus of the orchestra, though not overly dramatic, took its most definitive leap with Christoph von Dohnányi, music director from 1984 to present (he will step down in 2002, succeeded by Franz Welser-Möst). With Dohnányi at the helm, the Cleveland Orchestra has won four ASCAP awards for adventurous programming for orchestras of budgets over $10.8 million, including a third-place finish this year.

The direction of the orchestra is definitely shifting towards the commissioning of more music, but the ensemble still lags behind. Its 24 works since 1970 are fewer commissions than many orchestras of its size and prestige. The way the ensemble celebrated its 75th anniversary also speaks to this. Most orchestras commission several works for such an occasion, usually in addition to the works they already would have commissioned for that year. The Cleveland Orchestra itself followed this custom for its 40th and 50th birthdays. But to celebrate its 75th, Dohnányi and the orchestra instead embarked on a Ring cycle, to be performed in concert and to be recorded over several years.

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