It is surprisingly original and at the same time exceptionally right: an international commissioning project that unites an important sponsor with three equally important musical organizations.
The players in this new institutional quartet, the first of its kind, are Switzerland's Roche pharmaceutical company, Carnegie Hall, the Lucerne Festival, and The Cleveland Orchestra. Initial plans call for three Roche-commissioned works to be introduced by The Cleveland Orchestra over a three-year period; each will be given its world premiere at the Lucerne summer festival, followed by U.S. performances in Cleveland and at Carnegie Hall.
The first recipient of the Roche Commission is Britain's Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose Night's Black Bird was performed last summer in Lucerne and is heard here this month; the second is the Chinese composer Chen Yi, whose Si Ji ("Four Seasons") receives its premiere this August in Lucerne and arrives at Carnegie Hall in October 2005.
At first glance, the participation of a medical research company in a musical undertaking of this kind might appear to be a stretch, but closer acquaintance with this pharmaceutical giant shows the move to be entirely characteristic. In fact, Roche, which was founded in Basel in 1896, has been sponsoring artistic endeavors for much of its history. And the many commissions of the late Paul Sacher, a family member and influential figure on the Roche board, were responsible for the creation of an impressive number of important scores. As Roche CEO and chairman Franz B. Humer has said, "There is a close, intrinsic link between innovation in art and innovation in a research-oriented company such as Roche. Inspiration, innovation, and the pursuit of quality are our common bonds."
The idea of the commissioning series originated with Michael Haefliger, who, as artistic director of the Lucerne Festival, was already well acquainted with Roche's philanthropy. "It's kind of an ideal collaboration," he says of his Festival's cooperation with Carnegie Hall and The Cleveland Orchestra. "Our artistic interests are parallel. All of us were in complete agreement, and also felt strongly about composers Birtwistle and Chen. It was very easy to reach a mutual decision."
For his part, Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst notes that the project fits naturally into his orchestra's artistic philosophy. "If you look at the programs of The Cleveland Orchestra," the conductor says, "you will see that today we probably play more contemporary music than any other orchestra in America. We really commit ourselves to living in the present. Michael knew that Roche wanted to commission new pieces, and we said, 'Hey, we're in!' We all believe in performing new music, and we found each other."
Carnegie Hall's Klaus Jacobs, acting executive director, agrees. "The project was proposed to me by Michael Haefliger in 2001, when I was also serving as acting director," he recalls, "and it seemed a wonderful match between his institution and ours, both presenting organizations sharing long histories in new music, and having similar artistic ideals." Jacobs, too, has found the selection process remarkably unharried. "The collaborative decision making is a novel arrangement, and it has gone very smoothly."
Birtwistle, on the crest of a wave of special events in Britain marking his 70th birthday, has strong previous ties with The Cleveland Orchestra. The orchestra first performed a work of his in 1975, presented the U.S. premiere of his Earth Dances some years later, and in 2000 commissioned a score to celebrate the reopening of Cleveland's Severance Hall. In 2002 Welser-Möst conducted the world premiere of Shadow of Night. It is this last work, according to Birtwistle, that gives rise to the new Night's Black Bird, designed as a companion piece; both take songs of John Dowland as their starting point.
Chen Yi, born in Guangzhou, China, in 1953, has lived in the United States since 1986 (she is a professor of composition at the University of Missouri in Kansas City). "In my music, I try to create my own voice by combining Chinese style and elements with writing for Western orchestras," she explains. "It comes out of my heart naturally." Her new work, already titled but not yet completed, is Si Ji ("Four Seasons"), and will "reflect the eternal evolution and challenges of nature and its analogous relationship to the challenges of the human experience."
And Roche Commission No. 3? "That," says Haefliger, "is a secret." (It will be announced in Lucerne in August.) The good news, according to Jacobs, is that "there are indeed indications that Roche would like to continue the project."
Shirley Fleming is a music critic for the New York Post and New York correspondent for MusicalAmerica.com.