2017-2018 Contemporary Repertoire in Orchestral Programming: Part 2

The goal of Part 2 of "2017-2018 Contemporary Repertoire in Orchestral Programming" is to analyze what kinds of symphonic orchestra contemporary music was performed by twelve large American and Northern European Orchestras in 2017-2018, focusing on commissions, premieres, and nationality of contemporary composers performed. As we saw from Part 1, the six selected Northern European orchestras, on average, performed more contemporary music their American counterparts in the 2017-2018 season. However, there is a lot of variation in contemporary music performance in the United States. Looking only at symphony orchestra concerts, three of the six northern European orchestras examined performed contemporary works on over 40% of their concerts (Finnish Radio, Swedish Radio, and Royal Stockholm Phil) in the 2017-2018 season, and four performed over 30% (adding the Helsinki Philharmonic). By contrast, only one American orchestra performed contemporary music on over 40% of their concerts, the Philadelphia Orchestra, while two additional orchestras performed contemporary music on over 30% of their concerts, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In Northern Europe, the least amount of contemporary music was performed by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (16.9%) and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (21.8%). In the US, the Chicago Symphony (15.7%), Cleveland Orchestra (14.5%), New York Philharmonic (21.9%), and Boston Symphony (26.4%) performed the lowest amounts of contemporary music, compared to Philadelphia (41%) and LA (33.3%). Below, I will break down what types of works each orchestra played, and what I took to be the orchestra's approach to contemporary music performance in the 2017-2018 season. This part of the report will look at only symphonic contemporary repertoire, not chamber music or new music concerts (to analyze everyone 'equally').

In Northern Europe...

The HELSINKI PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA (HKO) performed twelve contemporary pieces in the 2017-2018 season, slightly below the N. European average of eighteen. These works were performed in 31.6% of HKO symphony orchestra concerts, the fourth highest percentage amongst the six N. European orchestras and fifth highest of all twelve orchestras. The director of the Helsinki Phil is Susanna Mälkki, who is also principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (33.3% of all LA Phil orchestra concerts featured contemporary music, quite similar to HKO). Of these twelve works, only one was a commission and world premiere, a new work by Finnish composer Veli-Matti Puumala. Half all contemporary works performed were by Finnish composers (Olli Mustonen, Sebastian Hilli, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Veli-Matti Puumala, Aulis Sallinen, and a children's concert featuring works by Finnish school-age children). The other half were composed by Austrian and German composers - Helmut Lachenmann, Jorg Widmann, Berhard Gander, Detlev Glanert, Wolfgang Rihm and Enno Poppe. While the works performed were all Finnish, German, or Austrian, they included composers with a large age range (28-82) and composers both internationally well-known and less so. While not specifically discussed here, it is worth adding that more than half of the chamber music concerts in the 2017-2018 season included contemporary music. If I were to describe HKO's contemporary music performance practice in the 2017-2018, I would say that while the orchestra did not consider commissioning and premiering works a priority, they intentionally included a focused range of contemporary music spread through the entire season. It will be interesting to see next season if this national breakdown of composers remains the same, suggesting a stylistic decision in programming, and perhaps longer-lasting partnerships between certain composers and the orchestra. It is worth mentioning that only the Chicago Symphony had such a focused geographic selection of composers, which is by no means a criticism, only an observation.

The FINNISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (FRSO), directed by Hannu Lintu, performed twenty-two contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season on 55.6% of their orchestra concerts, the largest percentage of all the orchestras surveyed. Six works were commissioned, all by Finnish composers, along with six world premieres and four Finnish premieres. This is the highest percentage of commissioned works amongst the N. European orchestras (27%), showing a balanced practice of both supporting the production of new Finnish music and supporting repeated performances of contemporary music in an effort, I presume, to incorporate more works in to 'standard' orchestral repertoire. The FRSO also tied the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, led by Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, for the largest variety of composers presented- from 11 different countries. Of the 22 works, 41% were by Finnish composers - Olli Virtaperko, Antti Auvinen, Lotta Wennäkoski, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Aulis Sallinen, Perttu Haapanen, and Sebastian Fagerlund. With the exception of Aulis Sallinen, this is a different set of Finnish composers than those performed by HKO, demonstrating perhaps the sheer breadth of Finnish composers working in the symphonic orchestra medium today. The rest of the composers performed came from Sweden (Anders Hillborg), Austria and Germany (Jorg Widmann and B.A. Zimmerman), the UK (Thomas Ades and Oliver Knussen), Japan (Toru Takemitsu), the US (John Adams), Canada/Finland (Matthew Whittall), Poland (Witold Lutoslawski), Spain (Jesus Rueda), and Latvia (Peteris Vasks). This list includes both internationally and lesser known composers, again speaking to the balance of repertoire presented.

The SWEDISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (SRSO) also performed twenty-two contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season. Four of these were premieres, though it did not say on the website if they were commissions as well. Like HKO, it seems premiering and commissioning works was not seen as a programming priority in the 2017-2018 season. Of the twenty-two works performed, seven, around 32%, were by Swedish composers (Anders Hillborg, Britta Byström, Sven David Sandström, Gustaf Allan Pettersson, Johannes Jansson), in addition to three more works by Russian/Swedish composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas. The remaining twelve works were by Finnish (6 works by Sauli Zinovjev, Aulis Sallinen, Kaija Saariaho and Einojunani Rautavaara), Russian (Sofia Gubaidulina), Austrian (Olga Neuwirth), British (Thomas Ades, Judith Bingham, Marc-Anthony Turnage) and German/Russian (Alfred Schnittke) composers. The SRSO, who is directed by British conductor Daniel Harding, performed fewer premieres and commissions than most of the other orchestras in this study, preferring to focus on Swedish and Finnish compositions (almost 60% of the 22 works, not counting Victoria Borisova-Ollas), with a few additions by other European composers.

The ROYAL STOCKHOLM PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, led by Sakari Oramo, performed the 2nd highest percentage of contemporary works amongst all twelve orchestras and the most contemporary pieces, thirty-one. Of these, three were world premieres/commissions, all by Swedish composers. Which shows, again, a programming practice more focused on the performance of existing contemporary works. Almost half of the thirty-one works performed were by Swedish composers - Andrea Tarrodi, Ann-Sofi Söderqvist, Britta Byström, Benjamin Staern, Rolf Martinsson, Jacob Mühlrad, Göran and Martin Frost, and Jesper Nordin, who are at many stages in their various careers ages 27-62. Two additional works were performed by Russian Swedish composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas, along with works by composers Kaija Saariaho (FIN), Anna Thorvaldsdottir (ICE), Mirjam Tally (EST), HK Gruber (AT), Matthias Pintscher (GER), Sofia Gubaidulina (RUS), Igor Markevitz (RUS/IT/FR), Pascal Dusapin (FR), Betsy Jolas (FR/US), John Adams (US) and Amy Beach (US). It is worth noticing, as an observation, that both the SRSO and RSPO performed more works by female composers than any of the other orchestras surveyed. The RSPO managed to perform more works by more composers from different countries, while still focusing mostly on Swedish composers.

The DANISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (DRSO) performed the least amount of contemporary repertoire of the six Northern European orchestras surveyed, and the third lowest amount of the twelve orchestras. Led by Fabio Luisi in his first year as chief conductor, the DRSO performed eight contemporary compositions in the 2017-2018 season. Of these, there was one commission from Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen, four world premieres, and two Danish premieres. This demonstrates a clear effort to focus almost entirely on showcasing brand new compositions, which is more American in style than Northern European, as we will see. Of the eight works performed, half were by Danish composers Karl Aage Rasmussen, Thomas Agerfeldt, Martin Stauning, and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. The remaining four works were by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing, British composer Thomas Ades, Scottish composer James Macmillan, and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. It will be interesting to see if there are changes in the coming years, as music director Fabio Luisi begins working with the orchestra (as he started in 2017, it is likely that the 2017-2018 was planned with less of his artistic input than will be going forwards).

Finally, the OSLO PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA (OPO) and chief conductor Vasily Petrenko performed 13 contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season. This is actually one more work than performed by HKO, even though only 23.1% of the OPO's symphony concerts included contemporary music compared to HKO's 31.6% (HKO had 57 regular season symphony concert whereas the OPO had 68). Similar, again, to HKO, the OPO only commissioned one work in the 2017-2018 and it was by a Norwegian composer. Of the 13 works performed, five were by Norwegian composers: Jan Erik Mikalsen, Egil Hovland, Magnar Åm, and Eivind Buene. The OPO also performed three works by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho this past season. The remaining five works were by Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist, Italian composer Luciano Berio, Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, British composer Paul Patterson, and American composer Michael Tilson Thomas. Again, this is a balanced mix between better- and lesser-known composers, and from a wide range of countries. It is interesting to note that while Finnish and Swedish compositions were played by all six Northern European orchestras except the DRSO, there were no Norwegian compositions played by any of the twelve orchestras except the OPO, and the only other orchestra that performed a work by a Danish composer other than the DRSO was the New York Philharmonic, who performed a work by Bent Sørensen.

In the United States...

The six orchestra surveyed this past 2017-2018 season demonstrate a couple different approaches to programming contemporary music. The CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (CSO) is led by Riccardo Muti, who also happens to be the oldest chief conductor of these twelve orchestras at age 76. The CSO performed 127 concerts in the 2017-2018 season, more than any other orchestra. They also had a five-concert chamber music series (one chamber music concert featured contemporary music), and a five-concert 'New Music' series. Yet only 15.7% of all symphony orchestras concerts featured a contemporary work. The orchestra performed five contemporary pieces last season, of which four were commissioned works, all by American composers.  These four were also world premieres; they were composed by composers-in-residence Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams, along with Jennifer Higdon and Max Raimi (a CSO violist). The only non-American work played in the 2017-2018 was a piece by Polish conmposer Krzysztof Penderecki. There were more composers included in the New Music series, of course, but discussing at the moment only the symphony concerts, the CSO seems to have an extremely focused contemporary music practice - the works of the composer(s)-in-residence, an additional couple American commissions, and a work Penderecki, who is internationally very well-known. It will be interesting to see if this limited performance practice remains, or if more contemporary music begins to be included as the other large orchestras, notably LA and Philadelphia, increase their contemporary music programming. A note aside, there have been nine composers-in-residence since the program started at the CSO in the late 1980s. Of those, five have been American (including Ogonek and Adams) and the other four have been British, Argentinian and Israeli-American. 

The LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC (LAP) performed thirteen contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season in exactly one third of their symphony orchestra concerts. The LAP performed four world premieres, two US premieres, and two west coast premieres. This means over 60% of contemporary symphonic music performed was a first performance, showing that like the CSO, the LAP is most interested in presenting brand new works. Of the contemporary works performed last season, five were commissioned pieces: three from American composers Andrew Norman, Nico Muhly, and Joseph Pereira (principal timpanist of the LAP), one from Esa-Pekka Salonen (FIN) and one from Cuban composer Tania Leon. These three US commissions were the only works by American composers performed last season. The orchestra performed five works by Salonen (FIN), who also used to be the chief director of the orchestra (1992-2009) and remains the Conductor Laureate. The other composers performed last season were Olivier Messiaen (FR), Luca Francesconi (IT), Chen Yi (CHI), and Matthias Pintscher (GER). Similar to the FRSO or RSPO, the LAP performance practice is one that includes commissions and premieres, but also performs a number of other composers from many different countries and from many periods within contemporary music. The current music director of the LAP is Gustavo Dudamel, the youngest of the twelve chief conductors, age 37. The long-time president of the LAP, Deborah Borda, has just joined the New York Philharmonic, so it will be interesting to see any changes that occur in the LAP and New York Phil in the coming seasons.

The BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (BSO), conducted by Latvian director Andris Nelson, performed six contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season. Despite the low number, they were performed on quite many concerts, around one fourth of all BSO symphony concerts in the 2017-2018 season featured contemporary music. The six works are a balanced spread between commissions, premieres, and repeated performances, with two co-commissions, one world premiere, one US premiere and one East Coast premiere. The commissions were from American composer Sean Shepherd and German composer Jorg Widmann. Two thirds of the works performed were by a wide stylistic range of American composers: Arlene Sierra, Derek Burmel, Sean Shepherd and John Adams. In addition to the Widmann, the BSO also performed one work by British composer Thomas Ades. I will be interested to see whether the BSO maintains its practice of mixing new and old contemporary music and performing them many times, or if they will start to perform more contemporary music like LA or Philadelphia.

The PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA (PO) was the biggest surprise when I surveyed orchestra programming last season, because I had no idea that they performed so much contemporary music. Under director French Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra performed seventeen contemporary compositions last season in 41% of their concerts. These statistics are more in trend with the orchestras of Sweden and Finland than the orchestras surveyed in the US. The PO only commissioned one work, a flute concerto from American composer Samuel Jones, which they also performed as a world premiere. There was also one US premiere, of Dutch Composer Michael van der Aa's Violin Concerto. Eight of the seventeen contemporary works performed were by American composers - Wayne Oquin, Jennifer Higdon, Wynton Marsalis, Samuel Jones, Hannibal Lokumbe (the composer-in-residence), Michael Tilson Thomas, and Tod Machover. The remaining works were composed by Guillaume Connesson (FR), Arturo Marquez (MEX), Thomas Ades and Peter Maxwell Davies (UK), James Macmillan (SCOT), Magnus Lindberg (FIN) and Van der Aa (NET). This practice is focuses on repeated performances of contemporary works, rather than premieres. There is a clear effort to play works by American composers, while also including a number of composers who audiences would probably not be familiar with. In 2018, Nézet-Séguin will become the new director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It will be interesting to see if this changes any programming decisions, or if the orchestra will continue to be at the forefront of orchestral contemporary music performance in the US.

The CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA (CO), along with the CSO, performed the least amount of contemporary music in the 2017-2018 season with only 14.5% of their concerts including a contemporary work. As I wrote in Part 1, it was also very difficult to get a full count of the orchestra's symphony concerts last season due to the way information is archived on the CO website and because of the residencies that the orchestra has in Florida and in Austria. Using the data I was able to compile, the orchestra, led by Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, performed only four contemporary works in the 2017-2018 season. They commissioned two works and all four contemporary pieces played were premieres (one world premiere and three 'Cleveland premieres'). The CO is the only orchestra to have 100% of its contemporary music performances be premieres, though the CSO came close at 80%. Both commissions were from European composers, Salvatore Sciarrino (IT) and Johannes Maria Staud (AT). The other two works performed were by American composer Stephen Paulus and British composer Julian Anderson. The Cleveland Orchestra, along with the New York Phil, were the only orchestras, both in the Northern European and American sets, who performed very little contemporary music by composers from their own country. As this study continues through the next few years, we will see whether programming practices of the CSO and CO converge or diverge with the other American orchestras, and what the reasons for that might be.

Finally, the NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC (NYP) was the orchestra that I thought would be the most innovative in contemporary music programming due to their history, level of international prestige, and geographic location in New York City. However, they fell behind both the LAP and PA in amount of contemporary works played (eleven) and percentage of concerts featuring contemporary music (21.9%). Former director Alan Gilbert (2009-2017) was a huge proponent of contemporary music, but he departed the orchestra in spring 2017 (one can read more here). In the 2017/2018 season the NYP commissioned two new works, both from Scandinavian composers (Bent Sørensen and Anna Thorvaldsdottir). The NYP also focused on premieres, with around 73% of the contemporary music performed being new - three world premieres, one US premiere, and four NYC premieres. The remaining works performed were mostly European. The only American works performed were by well-known composers John Luther Adams and Philip Glass. Four compositions by Salonen, who was the NYP composer-in-residence, were performed in the 2017-2018 season, along with works by Daniel Bjarnason (ICE), Luciano Berio (IT) and Joey Roukens (NET). Prior to his departure, Alan Gilbert was the only American chief director of one of these six American orchestras.  Dutch conductor and former Concertgebouw concertmaster Jaap van Zweden took over as music director designate in the 2017/2018 season, and will begin official as music director this fall 2018. With the change in music director, and new president Deborah Borda, we will see if there are any noticeable changes in contemporary programming next season in New York.

Concluding remarks...

This analysis will provide an important reference moving forward with subsequent years' reports. One can already see certain trends - most orchestras focus on promoting composers from their own countries, and many orchestras that perform a lot of contemporary music focus more on playing existing contemporary repertoire than premiering new works. The truth is that it is likely that most contemporary music will be 'new' to most audiences, whether it is a premiere or not. So I find it interesting that the prestige-factor of focusing on "premieres" still remains in some orchestras, but there could be many reasons for this (marketing, advertising, bringing in audiences, etc). The DRSO, who performed the least amount of contemporary music in the 2017-2018 season, had a contemporary music programming practice (and statistics) that more closely resembled that of the CSO and Cleveland Orchestra. The Boston Symphony demonstrated a more diverse contemporary programming practice, though they performed few works. Looking ahead, I am curious to see if Philadelphia and Los Angeles will continue to program a large and diverse quantity of contemporary music, providing evidence of whether this type of programming can be sustainable in the US. The New York Philharmonic had a music director who programmed a lot of contemporary music, but the focus was on European composers. With their new music director, it will be interesting to see if they move in the direction of Philadelphia, or of Chicago/Cleveland. The American orchestras included here perform almost twice as many concerts as their northern European counterparts, yet most do not take the opportunity to perform more contemporary music. One reason could be because each concert is performed two, or three, or four times, it is seen as a much larger risk to program a contemporary work with repeated performances. However, if Philadelphia continues to do so, and successfully, other orchestras might be inspired to try the same practice. My suspicion is that the choice is an artistic one, as much as it is a 'financial' one. The orchestras of Finland and Sweden led the statistics this past season with the most contemporary music performed, and in most cases, the most diversity. I look forward to reviewing the repertoire of next season to see how the practices identified here develop.

Lucy Abrams