Contemporary Repertoire in Orchestral Programming - Year 2 Report, Part 1


For the length of my doctoral project, I will be reporting yearly on contemporary music programming by large orchestras in Northern Europe (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) and the US (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles). This is ‘Year 2’ of the report, focusing on the 2018-2019 performing season. The goal of these reports is to assess how much and what kinds of contemporary music is getting played, and where, in an effort to understand how contemporary music programming is contributing to contemporary music culture regionally and globally. This includes any changes in programming practice over time.

Last year’s report (2017-2018 season) showed that the Finnish Radio Symphony (FRSO) and Swedish Radio Symphony (SRSO) programmed the most contemporary music of the twelve orchestras, followed closely by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (RSPO) and Helsinki Philharmonic (HKO). These overall results remained consistent when including just symphony orchestra concerts, and when including chamber music and “New Music” concerts in the concert totals. The Finnish and Swedish orchestras surveyed played the most amount of contemporary music of the twelve orchestras, with Chicago (CSO), Cleveland (CLE), and Danish Radio (DRSO) playing the least.

Entering the 2nd year of this study, I was interested to see whether Finland and Sweden would continue to lead Northern Europe, and the US, in contemporary music programming. Also, I wanted to see if the results from the 2017-2018 season, with the Philadelphia Orchestra (PO) leading both Los Angeles (LAP) and New York (NYP) in contemporary programming, would carry into this year. Part 1 of the report focuses on quantity of contemporary music performed, part 2 will examine the types of contemporary music being performed.


For each orchestra, I counted up the total number of symphony orchestra concerts each orchestra had in the 2018-2019 season. To gather this data, I used the calendars on each orchestra's website, the orchestras' archived concert information, and season brochures. I also totaled the chamber music concerts and 'New Music’ series concerts (where applicable), which when added to the number of symphony orchestra concerts, yielded a “total number of concerts”.

Once I had tallied concert quantity, I made a list of all the contemporary repertoire (works composed post-1970) that each orchestra played in the season and in how many concerts a given work was performed. I then counted up the total number of symphony concerts that featured contemporary music. In symphony and chamber music concerts where more than one contemporary work was played, it was counted as a single concert. Likewise, the New Music concerts only counted for one. Two percentages were calculated, one that included just symphony orchestra concerts, and one that included chamber music and New Music series concerts (again, where applicable).


Problems arose last year because I started gathering information in the spring time, and due to the way online concert calendars are kept for many of the ensembles, getting accurate concert totals for the entire year was difficult. This year, I began gathering data in August 2018. While some concert programs were undecided at that time, when I returned to the orchestra webpages in November and December, in preparation for this posting, the programs and tour information was complete. All concert totals are inclusive of all tours, children’s concerts, etc. It is worth noting that there are fewer ‘film score’ concerts in the US orchestras this year than last year, which I left out of the concert totals last year and this year. With the exception of HKO’s spring chamber music schedule (which is to be released in the the coming weeks, after which the data will be added below in ‘Results’), all season statistics are complete and accurate as of December 2018.


2018-2019 Contemporary Music Programming Results Table

2018-2019 Contemporary Music Programming Results Table

The table of the results are shown at left. As was the case last year, one can observe that the Finnish and Danish orchestras play significantly fewer concerts per year than the American orchestras. The American orchestras will often play the same program 4-5 times in a week, where a Finnish orchestra might only plan a given program once. This becomes a major consideration when “investing” in a ‘risky’ concert program, i.e. if there is reluctance in planning contemporary music for fear that it will not attract audience. Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia remain the only American orchestras (surveyed) without a dedicated New Music concert series. And both LA and NY increased their New Music Concert series this year.

The graphs below show the percentages of symphony concerts, and total concerts, that featured contemporary music based on the table above. The orchestras of Finland, along with the RSPO led by Sakari Oramo, continue to lead in contemporary music programming. HKO and RSPO surpassed both the FRSO and SRSO in contemporary programming in symphony concerts, but FRSO made up the difference when chamber music concerts were included for ‘Total Concert’ calculations. SRSO, led by Daniel Harding, played less contemporary repertoire this year than last year. In the US, the PO, which has neither chamber music nor New Music concert series, played 15% less contemporary music in their symphony orchestra concerts this year compared to last year and the Boston Symphony increased their contemporary music offerings by almost 14%. Both the NYP, led by Jaap van Zweden in his first year, and the LAP also increased their contemporary music programming this year in both regular symphony concerts and New Music concert series. LAP, for example, offered ten New Music concerts this year compared to four last year, in addition to an almost 10% increase in contemporary music performed in symphony concerts. The amount of contemporary music performance in Chicago, Cleveland and Oslo remained about the same this year, in percentages of contemporary music performed, though all three orchestras did play more contemporary works this year than last year.

Percentage of Symphony Orchestra Concerts featuring Contemporary Music in the 2018-2019 Season

Percentage of Symphony Orchestra Concerts featuring Contemporary Music in the 2018-2019 Season

Percentage of Total Orchestra Concerts featuring Contemporary Music in the 2018-2019 Season

Percentage of Total Orchestra Concerts featuring Contemporary Music in the 2018-2019 Season


Internationally, there appears to be a trend amongst the orchestras featured in this study of increasing contemporary music programming, if only slightly. Last year, only four orchestras (Philadelphia, FRSO, SRSO and RSPO) performed contemporary music in over 40% of their concerts, this year, there were five (LA, Boston, FRSO, HKO and SRSO). Furthermore, the average amount of contemporary music performed in total concerts in the six US orchestras increased from 25.5% last year to 28.6% this year. In Northern Europe, the average actually remained the same, due to SRSO playing almost 16% less contemporary music this year. SRSO and PO will be two to watch for next year, to see if the decreased contemporary music programming continues, or whether this year was an anomaly.

Comparison chart of contemporary music programming in total concerts performed between the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 seasons.

Comparison chart of contemporary music programming in total concerts performed between the 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 seasons.

Even though total percentages of contemporary music performed might have fallen in some orchestras, the quantity of new music works performed actually increased in every single orchestra except for the SRSO, DRSO and RSPO. In fact, even though total percentage of works performed remained lower, comparatively, in the CSO, CLE and OPO, all three orchestras performed more contemporary works this season than last season (the CSO performed 5 works last season and 6 works this season, CLE performed 4 works last season and 9 works this season, and OPO performed 11 contemporary works last season and 16 works this season). The total percentage of contemporary music performed also increased in the DRSO and RSPO, even though fewer individual works were performed (the DRSO performed 8 contemporary works last season compared to 7 this season, and the RSPO performed 32 last season, the highest of any orchestra, compared to 20 this season).


With two seasons of data, it is now possible to see that the overall amount of contemporary music performed by these twelve orchestras has increased this year, while regional differences remain. In Northern Europe, the FRSO, HKO, and RSPO continue to lead internationally in terms of the amount of contemporary music works performed as well as frequency of contemporary music performed in weekly symphony concerts and chamber music series. All three orchestras are led by Finnish music directors. In the US, the LAP jumped ahead of its American peer institutions in contemporary music programming, as well as increased its contemporary music offerings in chamber music and new music concert series. This year’s result in LA was what I had expected to see last year. California not only has a rich music history of contemporary music performance, but is geographically isolated from the other five orchestras. This could be a contributing factor in its ‘contemporary music practice’ being quite different than its peers, and more in line with the Finnish and Swedish Orchestras. LAP’s artistic staff is led by Gustavo Dudamel and chief guest conductor Susanna Mälkki, who is also music director of HKO.

I am interested to see if the increased contemporary music performance in Boston and New York continues next season. This year was the first season of new NYP director Jaap van Zweden, who alongside former LAP President Deborah Borda, appears to be reshaping the NYP’s contemporary music practice by commissioning more works, offering more works by American composers, expanding contemporary music offerings in both children’s concerts and two new music themed concert series. Also a surprise was the increase in contemporary music performed in Boston this season, switching places almost with the PO. Both the BSO and PO have a contemporary music practice that focuses less on premieres and commissions, compared to the other American orchestras, and features a wider range of American composers, many of whom are not performed by any other orchestra. Whether this is a local practice remains to be seen, but it does offer an alternative model of programming. While the percentage of contemporary music in symphony concerts decreased by the Philadelphia Orchestra this year, they actually performed more individual works, more commissions (two this year, one last year), and more American works than last year. More data will be required to establish a pattern of performance in BSO, NYP, and PO, but results from these first two years demonstrate that these orchestras might be in a period of experimentation or change when it comes to new music programming.

Overall, contemporary music performance remained at the lowest levels in Chicago, Cleveland, DRSO, and Oslo. For the purposes of my research, the contemporary music practices of DRSO and Oslo serve to accentuate the high levels of contemporary music performance in Finland, and Sweden. As I previously mentioned, Oslo performed more contemporary music this year in quantity of works, even if the percentage of contemporary music in concerts fell slightly. CSO, CLE, and DRSO, however, seem to be maintaining a very similar contemporary music programming practice, despite the differences geographically and culturally. CLE and DRSO both increased offerings slightly this year, but not yet on par with their neighboring orchestras. OPO announced this year that young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä will take over as chief director in fall 2020, adding to the influence of Finnish conductors on symphony orchestras around the world. (While not considered part of this study, it was also recently announced former LAP music director and Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen will be the new chief director of the San Francisco Symphony, also beginning fall 2020).

In part two of this report, I will examine in closer detail what kind of contemporary music is getting played in the different orchestras, breaking down the amount of premieres and commissions, as well as which contemporary composers are being performed by each orchestra, in an effort to paint a more detailed picture of contemporary music programming practice.


The Helsinki Philharmonic Chamber Music program for Spring 2019 included 7 chamber music concerts, of which 1 featured a contemporary work. This brings the percentage of total concerts of the 2018-2019 season featuring a contemporary work down to 43.1%.

Lucy Abrams