Great Commissions

Classic Arts Features   Great Commissions
 
The Philadelphia Orchestra and various partners come together to create new music, including Daniel Kellogg's Ben, premiering November 18.

There is good news for new music‹that is, if one values the relationship between audiences and orchestras. A cultural rift between contemporary composers and the public developed during the 20th century. Composers felt misunderstood and audiences felt mistreated because the compositional trends of the time left many concertgoers feeling lost. Now, however, the rift has been showing signs of repair. The Philadelphia Orchestra is playing a role in this by making new music a vital part of its present and future plans, and audiences, too, are taking a much more active role in bringing about the creation of new music.

"We make our music in a living cosmos," says Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. "It's vital that we renew the tradition, just as we see artists doing in the visual arts. Look at the new work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at smaller galleries and shops around the city. We must feature new music in this way, too." The Orchestra's 2005-06 season juxtaposes new music with the works of Beethoven, which one could either characterize as a conservative programming ploy or as invigorating counterpoint. Eschenbach advocates for the latter, explaining, "Beethoven's music is still radical, and it will always be new. His music embodies innovation and striving for that which is exciting and fresh."

The Orchestra's assortment of new works this season is refreshingly eclectic, avoiding easy categorization or allegiance to particular schools of musical thought. Composers range from 28-year-old Daniel Kellogg, winner of a nationwide competition to compose a piece for Benjamin Franklin's tercentenary, to the esteemed French composer Henri Dutilleux, who will celebrate his 90th birthday this season. True to Eschenbach's vision of Philadelphia as a city filled with musical invention, composers Gerald Levinson and Jennifer Higdon will get hometown premieres this year. Internationally renowned Sofia Gubaidulina will premiere a new work co-commissioned with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Chinese American composer Bright Sheng will premiere a new commission inspired by the Chinese zodiac. Other new works by such luminaries as John Adams, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Rouse will be performed, and from Finland (currently, a country of stirring musical invention) there will be works by Magnus Lindberg and Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Of course, commissioning music is nothing new. From Esterházy to Diaghilev, the history of classical music is filled with patrons and impresarios summoning great works‹and not-so-great works‹from composers. (The Philadelphia Orchestra's gloried commissioning past includes pieces by the likes of George Rochberg, Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions, and Samuel Barber, whose Toccata festiva returns this year for the dedication of the Kimmel Center's new organ.) What is new is that, more and more, orchestras and audiences are joining forces and getting into the act.

The notion of co-commissioning has been around for a while, but lately many orchestras have participated in a variety of large-scale consortium projects: More than 20 orchestras commissioned Ellen Taaffe Zwilich for a piece in 2000, and 65 smaller orchestras in all 50 states have co-commissioned a piece from Joan Tower. Philadelphia's co-commissions this year include the Gubaidulina with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and a "triple" commission of a new percussion concerto from Jennifer Higdon, with the orchestras of Dallas and Indianapolis as partners. Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, which won a Grammy Award this year, was a Philadelphia Orchestra commission that had its world premiere in 2002 under Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Sometimes commissioning is a matter of finding fresh talent, and, for this, orchestras need different kinds of partners. Such was the case with the American Composers Forum (ACF), a group formed by composers that has chapters nationwide. The ACF and its Philadelphia chapter held a competition for the Benjamin Franklin piece which resulted in a number of finalists presented to Eschenbach for his ultimate selection: Daniel Kellogg, a 28-year-old composer who was finishing his graduate studies at Yale. His Divinum mysterium, recorded by the contemporary chamber ensemble eighth blackbird, reveals a musician with an ear for fresh colors and rhythms. This should serve him well in paying tribute to the endlessly inventive Franklin. According to Eschenbach, "A competition is not the usual way of commissioning, but it is so important to discover the new talents among composers, not just the established ones."

For the most part, commissioning music is a matter of relationships. That is certainly true at major orchestras such as Philadelphia, where the music director's experiences with composers are central to the decision-making process. Musicians, though, do have a voice in who writes music for the orchestra: they act in an advisory capacity and often bring in composers to write a concerto for a particular soloist or instrument.

Of course, when you get down to it, commissioning is also a business deal. And without the money to back up the request, good intentions will not move a composer to put pen to paper. Over the years, The Philadelphia Orchestra has been lucky enough to engage its patrons and supporters in the act of commissioning. For the Franklin commission, the Neubauer Family Foundation is providing support, along with the Philadelphia Music Project (through the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the University of the Arts). The Philadelphia Music Project deserves special mention for its constant financial and artistic support, which this year has been extended to virtually all of the season's commissions, including the Higdon, Sheng, Levinson, and Gubaidulina works. Even in rough weather, the Philadelphia Music Project has been a faithful advocate of new music.

So what does the future hold? The Orchestra's vice president for artistic planning, Kathleen van Bergen, has some tantalizing predictions. "We're eager to build on what is happening currently in Philadelphia, in particular, the Orchestra's willingness to help develop younger composers like Daniel Kellogg, as well as the consortium idea, which gives a new work the opportunity to have a more extensive life. As for future seasons, the audience will see a greater willingness to acknowledge and build on successful pieces and relationships with composers. When you're on to something, you need to continue to support it through a long-term commitment." In this vein, future "commissionees" will almost certainly include Philadelphia's Higdon, whose ability to write for the Orchestra has endeared her to musicians, and whose success with audiences has not gone unnoticed by programmers. "We will not forget the international scene, either," says van Bergen. "We also have a responsibility to bring great composers' works to America, in order to present music that is born of a different frame of reference."

So what role do we have? How does the audience get into the act of commissioning? Before you dismiss this notion as something only the well-heeled should consider, think about this: One of the most active trends in new music is the commissioning club. Yes, there are book clubs and investing clubs, but now you can also pool your money to invest in new music. It can be something as simple as a solo violin piece to celebrate an anniversary or something as elaborate as a chamber concerto for a favorite musician in an orchestra. A well-known club in Minnesota has bought new pieces from composers Libby Larsen and Jennifer Higdon. Individuals have contributed to premieres by Terry Riley and John Adams, and, as the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum says about individuals commissioning new music on its Web site, "anyone can apply." Organizations such as the American Composers Forum (www.americancomposersforum.org) or Meet the Composer (www.meetthecomposer.org) can help you find the composer who is right for you and your pocketbook, along with helpful guidelines and pricing.

If you still want your new music combined with all the power and lushness of a symphony orchestra but do not have that kind of loose change, don't worry. The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2005-06 season offers generous helpings of new orchestral music with all the appropriate bells and whistles. Details about the season and the Orchestra's new Discovery Series, which features a concentration of contemporary works, can be found at www.philorch.org.


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