How American Are American Orchestras?

How American Are American Orchestras?

That the Albany Symphony Orchestra (ASO) won a 1999 ASCAP award for programming of contemporary music is hardly surprising. The orchestra commissioned no less than 13 new works in 1998-99. “Over the last 20 years, this orchestra has very involved in the commissioning of new works,” said orchestra spokesperson Sharon Walsh. This includes a hefty amount of 61 commissioned works since 1988.

But the award the ASO won is the ASCAP/Leonard Bernstein Award that specifically rewards an orchestra’s educational programming, an area in which the ASO also excels. Conductor David Alan Miller, who took over as music director in 1992, specializes in educating the audience through programming and also by his onstage commenting about pieces. Last season, for instance, the ASO commissioned works like Arthur Bloom’s “An Orchestra’s Guide to the Young Person.”

But it is more than pieces that won this award for the ASO. The orchestra ran “three new education programs this year and they were well received,” said Walsh. One program called “Band Jam” had eight composers collaborating with area high schools to create variations on “Zoot Suit Riot.” The different compositions were then showcased at a concert.

Much of the credit goes to Miller, who has established that the orchestra should commission 10 works a year for its smaller ensemble, Dogs of Desire (consisting of 17 instrumentalists drawn from the ASO and 2 vocalists), and 3-5 additional ones for the entire orchestra. The ASO has accomplished that goal in the last two years.

The ASO’s support of American composers has been absolute in the last decade, where 100 percent of those commissioned are U.S. composers, according to Walsh. “It’s truly part of our mission to focus on American composers and to champion 20th-century music.” The orchestra, founded in 1931, has always had this agenda, according to Walsh, but “it has grown over the years to where it has become a regular practice of what the symphony does.”

In addition to commissioning new works, the ASO actively seeks out previously premiered new pieces in a program called “Second Music.” “We give them a second hearing,” said Walsh. This practice directly addresses a pet peeve of many composers who feel that orchestras and music organizations are often premiere-happy, wishing to bask in the glory of a newly composed work, and less enamored with new pieces that don’t bear this tag. (Witness the ASCAP awards application that asks orchestras if a performed piece was a world, U.S. or even local premiere.)

The orchestra is also deeply committed to recording the music of American composers as their many CDs for Albany Records attest including their just-released disc of Roy Harris symphonies.

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

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.