Most of you who read these monthly musings know that I am big on preserving the heritage and legacy of composers from the United States. Our tradition is rich and full. There was a time when many of these creators were heroes, part of the ongoing march of cultural history.
It is important to understand what orchestras are doing next season and more importantly, why they are doing it. Some programming decisions needed to change in light of what we have experienced over this past year and a half. Placing emphasis on female performers and composers is long overdue, and pretty much every orchestra has recognized this, at least for the 2021-22 season. The same is true for musicians from minority communities. Black artists have, in some cases, been absent from programming aside from special observances placing them all together on a single concert. We should applaud the boards, staffs, and musicians who are working to balance the scales.
I decided to look at the fifteen highest-budgeted orchestras in the United States to see if any patterns emerged in their season announcements. In a few instances, programming information was incomplete, as the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has prompted some decisions to occur later than usual. What I discovered was an avoidance of what we might say constitutes a large part of our musical heritage in this country.
Again, if you know my work over more than half a century, you know that I have been a champion of American composers past and present. I have performed this music with my orchestras and as a guest conductor all over the world. One could say that a great part of my reputation, for better or worse, comes from this focus. In my upcoming book, Classical Crossroads, I examine the subject of musical nationalism in one of the chapters. It is not a new topic for me.
But one cannot say that these fifteen orchestras are neglecting American music. There are possibly more premieres from American composers this season than I can remember ever having seen before. And these new works reach across the diverse spectrum that is part and parcel of who we are. We are seeing composers’ names appear with several orchestras, and that is very good news indeed. Isolation has always been a danger when a composer is only associated with one orchestra.
In addition, orchestras are reaching back in history for female and Black composers who produced important works but were not recognized in their lifetimes. These composers will now be judged on the merit of their music, and it is possible that important voices will come to the fore. But it is far more likely that most of these compositions will remain in the background, aside from the discovery of perhaps a few original masterpieces. Mind you, I am not talking about the quality of the works themselves, but rather the individual character that differentiates them. This will be one of those “time will tell” periods to be measured when the next two or three seasons are announced.
As curators, orchestras must continue to reexamine the works that make up the standard canon. Predictably, coming out of the pandemic, our performing institutions are turning to the classics to provide some semblance of stability. Three criteria—highlighting diversity, spotlighting new talent, and providing comfort with the familiar—are the hallmarks of next season for virtually every orchestra. But these priorities come at a price.
I am not going to single out, or even identify, any of the fifteen orchestras. They have come to their season plans independently. You can figure all this out on your own. What I am left wondering about are the composers who thrived from around 1920 to the 1990s.
Only two of the orchestras are presenting what is called a “symphony” by one of these composers. Both examples are by Copland. What happened to Piston, Harris, Sessions, Schuman, Hanson, Diamond, and all the others who wrote astounding and individual music? Why are conductors so reluctant to program these symphonists?
Can it be that the interest in the past is not there? Have we lost our intellectual curiosity? Has marketing become so dominant that music directors are led on a different path? Perhaps this music just does not speak to any musicians today. What a shame if that is true, as it could wipe out several decades of important composers and pieces that shaped the foundation of orchestras in the United States. Imagine Russia ignoring Prokofiev and Shostakovich or the U.K. avoiding Vaughan Williams.
After all the ballyhoo surrounding Bernstein’s 100th birthday, what do we find among those fifteen orchestras next season? Only one instance of a Bernstein piece on a subscription concert. And what is it? Of course, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story! How he would have hated that.
Ives gets short shrift as well. With all the interest in the four symphonies recently, we only see The Unanswered Question popping up with a couple orchestras. Barber? Surprisingly, unless I missed it, no Adagio for Strings, although I did note several performances of the Violin Concerto. But that’s it.
I could just leave it at that, and for me, this is already problematic. But it continues into the next generations. Even some of the established composers who are still with us today are being passed over in favor of the new crop. Okay, I understand that we need to promote what is going on now, but not at the total expense of others.
“Of whom are you speaking?” I hear you asking.
Remember these names: Stucky, Rouse, Bolcom, Corigliano, Erb, Schwantner, Del Tredici, Crumb, Rochberg, Druckman? They and so many others were pivotal in paving the way for today’s composers. The good news is that a few who crossed from one century to the next do show up in some of the orchestras’ programming, namely Tower, Adams, and Higdon.
One other feature struck me when looking over the season’s offerings—most of the American music will be led by the music directors. Guest conductors are basically staying to the conservative tried and true, with an occasional premiere of a short piece at the beginning of their programs. Either those conductors, or the artistic administrators, seem afraid of chance-taking.
What does this mean, if anything?
The times they are a changin’. Perhaps only recordings will preserve this legacy. Maybe these composers and others will be forgotten, with the occasional festival revival to keep the flame alive. As I move into the final phase of my career, it is time for me to draw on my years of experience and bring what I have learned to the orchestras I conduct as a guest. I will give serious thought to pieces I might offer if asked to dig into the goldmine.
At this point, it is no longer up to me, or my similarly aged colleagues, to preserve history. As I often tell young conductors, “Find repertoire that makes you unique.” One of those areas could easily be the rich repository of masterworks from our musical past.