How American Are American Orchestras?

How American Are American Orchestras?

Andrew J. Druckenbrod
photo by Allison Schlesinger

The twentieth century will be viewed as a time in which composers expanded the range and possibilities of musical language and sound. But also as a period that saw a rift develop between new and old music, especially in the U.S. Here, orchestras delved into the pantheon of dead composers to satisfy their audiences’ affinity for past music. All during a time when more U.S. composers than ever before make at least a partial living from writing music.

So as we head out of this wild ride of a century, it’s as good a time as ever to take a closer look at to what level orchestras are supporting new, especially American music. Specifically gauging how many works they commission, since the ultimate support for a composer is money in the pocket to allow for the space and means to write.

We scanned 20 orchestras to check out their record for commissioning works over the last 30 years. The sampling isn’t scientific, but it is diverse. The so called “big five” are all here, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony. As are several other large-budget organizations from around the country: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

We also included four smaller-budget orchestras who have a special commitment to new music — the Women’s Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic — as well as two smaller-sized groups: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. Finally, there’s an examination of two youth/student organizations, the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra and the Etowah Youth Orchestra. The American Composers Orchestra, the only American orchestra whose mandate is exclusively the performance of music by American composers, has already been profiled in the first issue of NewMusicBox as the ultimate composer-led new music ensemble. Some of the orchestras were chosen for their exemplary record in supporting new music, while others were chosen for their general status in the musical community or their geographical location.

One observation from the survey is that bigger is not always better. That is, the bigger budgets of some orchestras do not guarantee a better track record for supporting new music. Ensembles such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony rival the New York Philharmonic and its $35 million annual budget in commissioning and both outpace the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Louisville Orchestra has a commissioning record that doubles or triples that of orchestras with double and triple its annual operating expenses. And the Cleveland Chamber Symphony runs circles around that other ensemble by the lake, the Cleveland Orchestra.

Partly because of artistic and cultural inertia and partly because the larger orchestras spend money to secure costly guest performers and conductors and build facilities (such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new ECHO public music learning center), they tend to program a bit more conservatively. The smaller-budgeted ensembles often have the opportunity to experiment more, and several do. Commissioning fees are high, but they are high to all orchestras. Some just make it more of a priority.

The survey ultimately indicated, however, that commissioning has been on the upswing in the last three decades. Most of the orchestras examined have a higher percentage of commissions since 1970 than before (many a substantial increase). Also, over 80 percent of these new commissions have been for U.S. composers, a healthy mark by any standard. It would appear, then, that the ship is pointed in the right direction as we move into the next century. A balance is beginning to form between the present and programming, between living composers and living audiences.

The Orchestras:

  1. Albany Symphony Orchestra
  2. American Composers Orchestra
  3. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  4. Boston Symphony Orchestra
  5. Brooklyn Philharmonic
  6. Chicago Symphony
  7. Cleveland Chamber Symphony
  8. Cleveland Orchestra
  9. Dallas Symphony
  10. Etowah Youth Orchestra
  11. Los Angeles Philharmonic
  12. Louisville Orchestra
  13. Minnesota Orchestra
  14. Manhattan School Of Music Symphony Orchestra
  15. New York Philharmonic
  16. Philadelphia Orchestra
  17. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
  18. San Francisco Symphony
  19. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
  20. Women’s Philharmonic

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