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New Effort Aims to Bring More Contemporary Music to Orchestras

by News Desk

Many orchestras, eager to demonstrate a commitment to contemporary music, have taken pride in programming works by living composers in recent years. But when the glamour of the premiere fades, many of those works all but disappear from the standard repertoire, rarely to be performed again.

Now a group of nonprofit leaders is working to make new music a more permanent part of the artistic landscape. The League of American Orchestras on Thursday announced an initiative that will enlist 30 ensembles over the next several years to perform new pieces by six composers, all of them women.

“There’s too much great music that gets lost and is never heard after its premiere,” Simon Woods, the league’s president and chief executive, said in an interview. “We thought, ‘We need to solve that.’”

While many orchestras are eager for the prestige of commissioning new works, Woods said they are not as focused on playing pieces that have premiered elsewhere.

“Orchestras should be patrons of new work,” he said. “But still, the second performance and the third performance are really important. Because it’s only when one hears a work a few times that it sort of snowballs and it has a chance of getting a toehold in the repertoire. Building that momentum is really important.”

The League, in partnership with the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and American Composers Orchestra, has been working since 2014 to bring more diversity to orchestral programming, including awarding commissions to female and nonbinary composers.

The initiative announced on Thursday will build on those efforts, pairing each of the six composers with five ensembles. The program, which will cost at least $360,000, will be financed by the Toulmin foundation.

The six composers are the British-born Anna Clyne, who works in the United States; Sarah Gibson, who is also a pianist; the Hong Kong-born Angel Lam; Gity Razaz, an Iranian American; Arlene Sierra, an American based in London; and Wang Lu, a China-born composer and pianist, who lives in Providence, R.I.

Wang said in an interview that it was often difficult for contemporary composers to find orchestras interested in playing new works after they have premiered.

“As a composer, I can’t just like knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, this is my music, why don’t you play it?’” she said.

Wang, who is working on a new piece that the New York Philharmonic is to premiere in January, said the league’s initiative would give artists more opportunities to develop. “You can only get better by working with orchestras,” she said in an interview. “Only by listening can you improve.”

The initial group of orchestras taking part are the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Kansas City Symphony and the Sarasota Orchestra. Those ensembles will begin to premiere and perform the works by the composers next season.

In the coming months, the league will choose the remaining 24 ensembles that will take part in the program.

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