Reinventing the American Orchestra

Anthony Tommasini wrote an article in The New York Times this week (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/12/arts/music/american-orchestra-classical-music.html) on how orchestras need to reinvent themselves in our nation’s new environment. Scant mention was made of female composers, living and dead, being part of the solution – with only one mention of the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, which commissioned works from 19 female composers, many of color.

It is no secret that under 3% (or 2% I’ve also heard) of music played by symphony orchestras in this country are written by women. The same is true worldwide. A huge percentage is by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. A modern composer can mean Rachmaninoff who died in 1943. Commendable efforts are sputtering along to find African-American composers to play. The go-to African-American female composer last season has been Florence Price, who died in 1953.

As always, smaller ensembles, and venues like National Sawdust, are way ahead in this regard and didn’t need our national reckoning with race to spur their efforts at diversifying whose music gets played and who plays it. Why doesn’t every orchestra (and opera company) have a smaller ensemble that plays new music in different venues? The New York Phil Bandwagon was a great start, giving concerts in New York neighborhoods, including new commissioned works. Co-commissioning new works by living composers, male and female, of all ethnicities, can be a bridge to building community and understanding and new audiences. And it can spread the costs of a commission among several orchestras, while giving greater exposure to a new work that too often get a premier and die.

Orchestras need, like baseball teams, to build the farm system. They need to sponsor younger composers right out of conservatory, provide composer-in-residencies that would pair a young untried composer with a more experienced one and do repeated readings of their works so that the composer can get feedback and refine their compositions. And make recordings so that the new works can get greater exposure.

All it takes is vision, and will, and, yes, money. But the payoff can be multiples of the investment.