The list of works that the New York Philharmonic has commissioned or premiered in its 160 years grows this season by seven, ranging from John Adams's memorial to 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls, performed this past September, to Oliver Knussen's Fourth Symphony, to be offered in June. This month (December 19-21) sees yet another exciting entry: Rodion Shchedrin's The Enchanted Wanderer, which the composer describes as "an opera for the concert stage." This dramatic tale of Gypsies and an enchanted mystic, based on a tale by the 19th-century Russian storyteller, novelist, and journalist, Nikolai Leskov, is one of the first Philharmonic commissions in which Music Director Lorin Maazel had a direct hand.
The Shchedrin commission grew out of both practical and artistic considerations: "It evolved," says Executive Director Zarin Mehta, "because we decided to do Handel's Messiah." That work‹which the Philharmonic performs under Sir Neville Marriner at Riverside Church (December 18-21)‹is largely scored for strings. The Shchedrin, in constrast, employs more brass and winds.
The piece, according to Maestro Maazel, "is in the tradition of 19th-century Russian storytelling. It is filled with the great Russian themes‹tragedy, unrequited love, loneliness‹with a great sense of the occult and a strong strain of Gypsy lore, which plays such a huge role in Russian culture. Shchedrin has come up with an important work that is very appropriate during the holiday season."
While the choice to commission a work by a composer as beloved and accomplished as
Shchedrin should come as no surprise, an examination of the history of works introduced by the Philharmonic reveals a great deal that is unexpected. One surprise is how many pieces, new when the Philharmonic unveiled them, are now familiar favorites. Among the most notable: nothing less than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, performed in 1846, when the orchestra was just four years old. In those days‹surprising as this might seem‹the choice of the Ninth was a daring one. Even 20 years later, a conservative subscriber (and a future Philharmonic president), George Templeton Strong, complained that the piece was full of "spasms and oddities."
Other 19th-century American premieres by the Philharmonic included Beethoven's Eighth, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony, Brahms's Fourth, and Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique." In fact, during the last half of the 19th century the Philharmonic all but specialized in difficult new music by the likes of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner.
As for world premieres, among the most triumphant was certainly Dvor=ák's "New World" Symphony, unveiled in 1893 so successfully that the composer himself came onstage to lead an encore of the second movement. Other triumphs included the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Gershwin's An American in Paris‹which Lorin Maazel will lead at a gala all-Gershwin concert on New Year's Eve‹and his Piano Concerto in F, which the Orchestra will reprise this June.
One New York Philharmonic commission that was not so well received was Aaron Copland's Connotations, premiered in 1962 at the opening of Lincoln Center. Copland, known for accessible works based on tuneful American themes, was a natural choice, except for one thing: he had started experimenting with the 12-tone system. The audience greeted the work, Copland later reported, with "a confused near silence." After the concert, the composer encountered Jackie Kennedy, one of many celebrities in attendance. "Oh, Mr. Copland!" was all she said. Copland later asked a friend what that meant. "Oh, Aaron, it's obvious," the friend replied. "She hated it!"
The Philharmonic, as its history amply demonstrates, has always viewed the presentation of important premieres as part of its mission. But it is another surprise to learn that the idea of commissioning‹as opposed to simply premiering‹new pieces dates mainly from the 1960s, and that commissions have often come in clumps. Seven works were commissioned for the Orchestra's first year at Lincoln Center (including Connotations), and another 18 for the Philharmonic's 125th anniversary in 1967. Another six were commissioned, jointly with other orchestras, for the American bicentennial in 1976; another 30 for the Orchestra's 150th anniversary. The most recent collective commission resulted in the six Messages for the Millennium, by composers as varied as Thomas Adès, John Corigliano, Hans Werner Henze, Giya Kancheli, Kaija Saariaho, and Somei Satoh. The Orchestra performed five of these works on November 11, 1999; Kancheli's And farewell goes out sighing... was premiered the following week.
One final surprise comes from examining the first half of the 20th century, when modernist composers were exploring fascinating, knotty harmonies. Conventional wisdom now maintains that orchestras, afraid that such experimentation would drive away patrons, hardly performed any world premieres during this period. The Philharmonic archives tell a different story: 47 world premieres in the 1920s, 44 in the 1930s, and an amazing 90 in the 1940s, more than two-thirds of them before 1945. It's a record that the Orchestra, despite its active program of commissions and premieres in the last half-century, hasn't equaled since.
During World War II, for instance, the League of Composers commissioned war-related works, and the Philharmonic premiered seven of them. One work in this series, Invasion, was by Bernard Rogers, who had started his career with To the Fallen, a dirge for those who died in World War I, which the Philharmonic premiered in 1919. Rogers may have reached his peak in 1946 with another Philharmonic world premiere, In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written shortly after the president's death. The Philharmonic placed the new work between two noble masterpieces, Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Ninth Symphony, and invited diplomats from around the world to attend, since many were in New York to establish the United Nations. Even gossip writers paid attention. One reporter spotted Frank Sinatra at the concert, "accompanied by a cuddly blonde," and asked him what he thought of the premiere. "It takes time to digest," Sinatra said.
Greg Sandow is a music critic for The Wall Street Journal.