New York Chamber Symphony Receives Challenge Grant For New Music Competition


Gerard Schwarz
Gerard Schwarz
photo by Steve Sherman

The New York Chamber Symphony has received a $100,000 challenge grant from the Knight Foundation for a new music project. In cooperation with WNYC radio, the project is a competition for contemporary music that will be selected by orchestra musicians and judged by the audience. The competition is planned for the spring of 2002, and will be broadcast by WNYC and National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.” The nationwide radio audience, as well as the concert hall audience, will award prizes to two winners and two finalists. Music Director Gerard Schwarz calls the competition an “extraordinary opportunity for those of us who care about 21st century music.”

The idea for the project came from an article in the April 1998 edition of Harmony entitled “Restoring the Ecosystem of Classical Music Through Performer Selection and Audience Empowerment.” Written by Soong Fu-Yuan, who later became the New York Chamber Symphony’s Director of Audience Empowerment, the article came to the attention of Music Director Gerard Schwarz and Omus Hirshbein, the Symphony’s current Executive Director, in late 1998. In the article, Fu-Yuan advanced the idea that “the time has come for audience and performers to have a direct voice in the selection of new music.”

“For the past fifty years, ” Fu-Yuan commented in an interview, “the selection of new music has been made by the music director or by a panel of experts.” This has not been conducive, he contends, to the addition of contemporary works to the standard orchestral repertoire. Fu-Yuan draws a parallel between the relationship between composer, performer, and audience to that of manufacturer, purveyor, and client. Keeping with this analogy, he feels that the performers should make the decision as to what they try to “sell” to their audience.

From Fu-Yuan’s theories came the notion of a composition competition that would bypass the stage of “panel selection.” Instead, the musicians of the New York Chamber Symphony will directly select the semifinalists from the submitted entries. Three aspects of this process will distinguish this competition from its fellows, the “Masterprize” in England, and Philadelphia’s Centennial Composition Competition: the direct involvement of the orchestral musicians from the start; the of use recordings rather than scores alone for the initial review, and the anonymity of the contestants, which will be protected until the very end of the competition.

Portions of the selected works will then be broadcast on NPR’s “Performance Today,” courtesy of member station WNYC. The listening audience and the orchestra players will then vote to select the four finalists. At the final concert, the audience and the musicians will vote for two of the four works performed. The listening audience will also vote via telephone and the Internet. Thanks to electronic tallying, results will be available immediately following the voting. In the event that the concert audience and the listening audiences vote for different compositions, the first and second prizes will be split among the winners. First prize will be $50,000 and the second prize will be $35,000; the two remaining finalists will receive $5000 each.

“The competition itself is not the ultimate goal,” commented Gerard Schwarz. “The goal is to find pieces that are embraced by the audience, and it is about the debate about new music, its qualities, its place, and its audience.” Schwarz, who has received attention for his recordings and performance of the works of Howard Hanson and David Diamond, among others, seems concerned about the unenthusiastic response it generates even within the arts community. “Its odd for me to have so many friends involved in modern art, modern architecture, modern plays, thought-provoking books, and yet have very little interest in new music,” he explained. His hope is that the competition will serve as a “catalyst” for some desperately-needed discussion, one that will hopefully “move beyond the arts section of the newspaper.”

Benjamin Roe, at National Public Radio, is similarly energized by the prospect of using new technology to disseminate new music to a larger audience. “Technology has caught up with what [we] want to do, with [the possibility of] instant tabulations, [and] instant polling. It’s going to yield some very interesting results.” Roe called the competition “a way to celebrate new music.” Recently, he has been working on a series of Copland documentaries for NPR, and he admitted that he would like to see composition competitions regain some of the prestige they held fifty years ago. He is pleased that NPR is already working with the Chamber Symphony and WNYC, and foresees that it will be a very “media-friendly” event.

The conditions of the Knight Foundation grant meant that the Chamber Symphony, partnered with WNYC, need to raise an additional $100,000 within one year in order to be able to use the money. WNYC has already received some money from the NEA, and both organizations are working to raise more. Fu-Yuan stated that the competition will probably cost more than $200,000, depending on the number of entries they receive.

At the moment, the Chamber Symphony is still ironing out details in the competition rules. As it currently stands, they will not require that the music is newly-written, although it must be the work of a living composer who is an American citizen or a permanent resident. There will be no upper age limit, although a lower age limit may be imposed. Most significant, perhaps, there will be no restrictions placed on who can vote.

Schwarz predicts that the role of the audience in determining the winner will cause controversy. “Many people will say that it is not a positive thing,” Schwarz commented. He feels that the question of who should be deciding what new music the Chamber Symphony plays is one of the matters that should be discussed. “Who knows better?” Schwarz quipped. “Do I know better? I am more educated, I have listened to more, I am more experienced. [But the decision ultimately] has to do with taste, and many members of the audience have wonderful taste.”

Schwarz also hopes that the involvement of the audience on such a direct level will free the classical music community from some self-imposed restrictions. “Let’s say that 30% of the press are lovers and supporters of the more difficult music being written today,” Schwarz conjectured. “This probably reflects [the tastes] of 3% of the audience.” However, performers who wish to program for their audience generally are not in position to completely ignore the press. Schwarz feels that a competition like this one may open up debate on the question of whether the power of musicians and the musical press to create “fads” for one style or another is destructive.

Fu-Yuan hopes that funding will be available for the Chamber Symphony and WNYC to repeat it every couple of years. What will mark it a success or a failure? According to Fu-Yuan, the ultimate goal is not only to “dig up some creative works that would become part of the standard literature, ” but to “make American classical music as popular as Beethoven or Brahms, to make listening to new music as urgent as going to see a new movie.”