Contemporary Repertoire in Orchestral Programming - Year 3, Part 1


For the length of my doctoral project, I report 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). What follows is the third year of this report, commenting on the 2019-2020 orchestra season. The goal of these reports is to assess how much and what kinds of contemporary music is played, and where, in an effort to understand how contemporary music programming by major orchestras is contributing to contemporary music culture regionally and globally. Part 1 of this report presents comparisons in quantity of contemporary music being performed by each orchestra, while part 2 of the report details what types of contemporary music are being programmed (premieres, commissions, composers, etc) and where.

This year, I am looking to finally being able to see year-to-year programming practice as part of a larger “picture” or pattern. As mentioned in the previous reports, it was difficult to assess whether what I was seeing in a given season was simply a “one-off”, or evidence of a pattern. Now in year three, with no major changes in orchestra presidents and chief conductors/artistic directors*, we will see if increases or decreases from years one and two continue.


For each orchestra, I counted up the total number of symphony orchestra concerts each orchestra had in the 2019-2020 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”. I accessed this data initially in July and August 2019, and reviewed it in September to fill in holes. This report will be updated through the year when I am made aware of changes.

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 series 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).

As in last years report, film concerts (where orchestras perform the film score of a motion picture live with the film) and children’s concerts were not counted this year in the sum totals of concerts. This could make total concert counts for some of the Northern European orchestras seem low, because they play quite many children’s concerts. However, I believe that not counting these concerts yields more accurate percentages of contemporary performance. Further, it avoids having to assess whether certain works on children’s programs should “count” as contemporary music or not. As my interest in these reports is contemporary classical symphonic repertoire, symphony, chamber and “new music” series are concerts are better indicators of performance practice than film or children's concerts.


As in previous years, the orchestras considered in this study were the New York Philharmonic (NYP), Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Cleveland Orchestra (CLE), Boston Symphony Orchestra (BOS), Philadelphia Orchestra (PHIL), Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAP), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (DRSO), Helsinki Philharmonic (HKO), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (RSP) and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO).

Table of 2019-2020 Contemporary Programming Data compiled by Lucy Abrams (July-September 2019)

Table of 2019-2020 Contemporary Programming Data compiled by Lucy Abrams (July-September 2019)

The table above presents this years data. As in previous years, the American orchestras tend to perform about twice as many concerts annually as their Northern European counterparts. Whereas the European orchestras typically present each program once, or twice, the American orchestras perform each program four or five times in a given week. As previously discussed, this makes each concert (for the US orchestras) a larger economic investment.

Chamber music concerts were considered for every orchestra except the Helsinki Philharmonic, for which program information was not available at this time. As soon as I receive that information, I will update the table. It remains, as in previous years, that all orchestras except the Danish Radio, Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony have chamber music series. DRSO, CLE and CSO have also had similar a programming practice of contemporary music in the first two years of the study and this season, they significantly increased their contemporary music performance in symphony concerts. Also as in previous years, only the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have separate “New Music” series concerts. The New York Philharmonic has increased the quantity of these New Music concerts over the last three seasons, offering only two in the 2017-2018 season, six in the 2018-2019 season, and now fourteen in this current season. This, while over doubling the amount of contemporary music they are programming in symphony concerts from 21.9% in the 2017-2018 season to 45.5% this season. The Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles New Music concert series have remained consistent (in 17’-18’, 18’-19’, and 19’-20’ the CSO had four or five New Music concerts, the LAP had four, ten and six). In the chamber music concerts, there is no clear pattern emerging yet, besides that the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is the only orchestra that has consistently, in these three seasons, programmed contemporary repertoire in at least half of their chamber music concerts.

I had been wondering how much the “extra” (chamber music and “New Music” series) concerts included in the “Total Concerts” percentage affected the change in the two percentages I had been calculating. The truth is that with a few exceptions, not a lot. The average percentage change in "Symphony Concerts” and “Total Concerts”, for those orchestras that have those extra concerts, was on average 2.26% in the 2017-2018 season, 1.88% in the 2018-2019 season, and 2.3% in the 2019-2020 season. There were two exceptions - in the 2017-2018 season, the (unusually) large amount of contemporary chamber music performed by HKO resulted in the “Total Concert” percentage being around 6% higher than the “Symphony Concert” average (this 6% was not counted in the 2.26% average for the rest of the orchestras). Likewise in the 2018-2019 season, the large amount of contemporary chamber music performed by the FRSO increased the concert percentage from 40% to 50%. This 10% jump was not counted in that season’s average (1.88%), but it did perhaps mask the fact that both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and HKO performed more symphonic contemporary music that season than the FRSO. This season, the percentage changes were much smaller. The largest differences were for the New York Philharmonic, whose increased New Music series offerings accounted for a jump of 4.1%, and the FRSO, who played much less contemporary chamber music this year causing their “Total Concert” percentage to drop 4.8%. (The average calculated for this season included both orchestras). Of all the orchestras, only the RSP increased its “Total Concert” percentage through chamber music programming.

The bar graph at right compares the contemporary programming in Symphony Concerts amongst the orchestras. Except for the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, every orchestra programmed contemporary repertoire in over 25% of concerts, a major jump from the last two seasons. Further, four out of the six American orchestras studied programmed contemporary music in over 40% of Symphony Concerts this season, a significant increase from previous seasons. In Northern Europe, three out of six orchestras had contemporary programming in over 40% of symphony concerts. But as you can see in the chart, nine out of twelve orchestras this season programmed contemporary music in at least 38% of concerts. Contemporary programming in American orchestra’s Symphony concerts has increased, while contemporary programming in European orchestras has remained about the same.

Graph comparing Contemporary Repertoire programming in Symphony Concerts in the 2019-2020 season taken from data in the table above, compiled by Lucy Abrams (July-September 2019)

Graph comparing Contemporary Repertoire programming in Symphony Concerts in the 2019-2020 season taken from data in the table above, compiled by Lucy Abrams (July-September 2019)


This year saw significant increases in contemporary programming in the United States, such that average programming of contemporary music in symphony and total concerts surpassed the Northern European average for the first time since this study began. The six American orchestras surveyed performed contemporary music in an average of 41.5% of Symphony orchestra concerts this season, compared to 34.4% of Northern European Symphony concerts. In contemporary music programming in “Total concerts”, the American orchestras averaged 42.9%, while the European orchestras surveyed averaged 29%.

Amongst the American orchestras surveyed, the average percentage of contemporary music programmed in “Symphony” and “Total” concerts the past two seasons (2017-2018 and 2018-2019) was around 27%. This season, the average was around 42%. In the past two seasons, there was only one American orchestra per year that programmed contemporary music in over 40% of symphony concerts, the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2017-2018 and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 2018-2019 season. This season, four orchestras programmed contemporary music in over 45% of symphony orchestra concerts - the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. And while the CSO and Cleveland Orchestra still program the least amount of contemporary music of the six American orchestras surveyed, both orchestras significantly increased the percentage of contemporary music performed in concerts this year. The CSO performed contemporary music in 27.2% of concerts and the Cleveland Orchestra in 39.5% of concerts, increases that are nearly doubled from the percentages of the previous two seasons.

In Northern Europe, there are fewer changes to report. The average amount of contemporary music played in Symphony and “Total” concert counts remains almost the same from season to season, around 34.6% of Symphony concerts, and around 30% of ‘total concerts’, on average. In the first year of this study, the FRSO clearly played the most amount of contemporary music in 55.6% of symphony concerts, but their contemporary programming dropped last season to 40% of symphony concerts. It has risen slightly to 43.1% this season, which is the highest this season of Symphony orchestra contemporary programming in the Northern European orchestras. The SRSO contemporary programming in Symphony orchestra concerts also dropped around 10% from the 2017-2018 to 2018-2019 seasons, but it jumped back up this season to 40%. The RSP and HKO had significant increases in contemporary Symphony orchestra programming last season, have fallen back a bit this season, are holding steady across the three years of this study at about 40%. So while there are slight changes year-to-year in the Finnish and Swedish orchestras, they are remaining relatively consistent overall, with programming of contemporary music in around 40% of Symphony and Total concerts.

The DRSO and OPO, which I have observed to be the European equivalents of the CSO and CLE programming-wise, are still programming the least amount of contemporary music of the contemporary orchestras. However, the DRSO increased its contemporary music offerings this season (remember they have no chamber music or “New Music” series concerts), and average about the same contemporary music as the Chicago Symphony at around 29% of concerts. The OPO is the only orchestra that has consistently played less contemporary music every season since this survey began. It will be interesting to see if this continues when Klaus Mäkelä takes over as chief conductor in 2022.

In assessing ‘quantity’ of contemporary music performed, one should also consider the number of works each orchestra is performing in a given season. In previous seasons, despite having half as many concerts, the Northern European orchestras on average played nearly 20 individual symphonic contemporary works a season. The American average in the 2017-2018 season was 9 works, jumping to 14 works last season. This season, however, the Northern European average has fallen to 16 works, while the American average has increased slightly to 15 works. So while the average percentage of symphony concerts featuring contemporary repertoire is higher in American orchestra this season than European orchestras, the average number of works being played is still high, slightly in Europe. That being said, all six American orchestras surveyed have kept even or increased, some quite dramatically, the number of contemporary symphonic works performed from the 2017-2018 season to this season. In Northern Europe, the numbers are much more mixed, with only the DRSO increasing the number of works being played every season, and every other orchestra either remaining constant (FRSO, OPO, HKO) or playing fewer works (RSP, SRSO).


Now in year three of this report, some of the patterns I hoped to see have emerged. Every American orchestra surveyed is significantly increasing their contemporary music programming in symphony orchestra concerts. The New York Phil has “caught up” to the LA Phil in a very sudden jump of contemporary programming this season, and right now the NYP, LAP and PHIL are all programming equally highest percentages of contemporary music and playing the most amount of new works, with the BSO close behind (the BSO had programming percentages that matched New York, LA and Philadelphia, but played fewer individual works). Finally, the gap between the coastal and midwest orchestras is much less pronounced than in the first two seasons. Both Cleveland and Chicago, though Cleveland to a greater degree, are programming more symphonic contemporary music and playing many more individual works per season.

The picture in Northern Europe is much less clear. While the Finnish and Swedish orchestras are programming more contemporary music than their Norwegian and Danish counterparts, they are not performing significantly more contemporary music than their American peers for the first time since this study began. While the American orchestras studied have steadily increased contemporary programming every season, the Northern European orchestras in this study have been much less regular. So while I calculate percentages, take averages, and calculate yearly increases and decreases, these numbers have not provided me with as much information as they have for the American orchestras. At this point it is difficult for me to say whether contemporary programming is going down in these Finnish and Swedish orchestras, or whether it is settling around some average that will remain consistent over a longer period of time. My hypothesis is that is it the latter, that while contemporary music programming in the 45-55% range of symphony concerts is not uncommon in a given season, the average amount of contemporary music programmed in Finnish and Swedish symphony orchestra concerts will remain around 40%. What will be interesting to see is if the DRSO will continue to increase its contemporary music programming, like its American peer institutions in Cleveland and Chicago, and if the OPO will start increasing its contemporary offerings to match the other orchestras globally.

Part 2 of this study will examine more close what kinds of symphonic contemporary music is being programmed by these orchestras, with a focus on premieres, commissions, and contemporary stylistic preferences.

* This week it was reported that Simon Woods, who replaced Deborah Borda as Chief Executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is stepping down after less than two years. While this will not affect this years season, it has the potential to affect next year. Link here to that story. But as the Times reported, the chief operating officer of the Philharmonic, Chad Smith, is the one who “oversees the orchestra’s adventurous programming and he remains. Chad’s bio can be found here.

Lucy Abrams