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A broader spread: Repertoire in US orchestral seasons next year

Disney Hall. Photo: Carol Highsmith. Source: United States Library of Congress.

2019-20 seasons are about to begin in the States so I thought I’d browse US orchestral brochures to see what I might want to go to. I once joked to the artistic administrator of an Australian orchestra that devising orchestral programs could be done with three spinning-wheels labelled ‘overture’, ‘concerto’, and ‘symphony’, each containing 25 standard works. But maybe that was a particularly dark period, or I was in a particularly dark mood, and things have changed.

I guess I’m most interested in repertoire since that’s where the face of the field alters. And I can’t pretend to have produced a scientific paper. This really is, still, just ‘a letter from America’.

I’ve often considered the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s the most enticing programs (which is handy since I live 20 minutes from Disney Hall). Next season doesn’t disappoint. For the orchestra’s centenary, the current and two former Music Directors Gustavo Dudamel, Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen feature in programs that play to their strengths. Dudamel will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth (I guess you can’t overlook it) but it will be paired with a new work by Mexican composer, Gabriela Ortiz. Salonen conducts programs covering music of the Weimer Republic which includes a collaboration with director Simon McBurney and his brother Gerard on music-theatre by Hindemith (Murderer, the Hope of Women) and Kurt Weill (The Seven Deadly Sins). Mehta will conduct Mahler’s Second. For the Centennial Birthday gala, there’s even a newly-commissioned work ‘for three conductors’ from Daniel Bjarnason (and Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, a Philharmonic commission, which was premiered in 1993 and, incidentally, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra soon after, in 1994.)

New star, Susanna Mälkki will conduct four programs. Dudamel and jazz legend Herbie Hancock co-curate a series called Power to the People!, which includes Terence Blanchard’s music for the films of Spike Lee, and the West Coast premiere of a Philharmonic commission, another music-theatre piece called Place, by Pulitzer Prize-nominee Ted Hearne. It’s part of the Green Umbrella contemporary music series. Even when programs veer toward the conservative there is often something to spice them up. Dudamel will conduct Dvořák’s last three symphonies paired with another composer who drew on the folkmusic of his homeland, America’s Charles Ives. Oh – did I forget? – they’re also doing Schoenberg’s hyper-cantata Gurrelieder. Given Mehta’s presentation of Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony early in the season, I guess the LA Phil is heeding Sam Goldwyn’s maxim ‘to start with an earthquake and build to a climax’ (though in terms of lived life, I’m glad we’ve gotten past that recent fortnight of constant tremors where I felt the apartment was more like a houseboat on Broken Bay.)

There is one orchestra in the US that has done more than any other to build repertoire and that is the Boston Symphony, on the other side of the country or ‘back East’, as older Californians say. From the orchestra which gave the 20th century Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, comes rather more commissions than usual. They’ll be doing works by, among others, Betsy Jolas, Chihchun Chi-sun Lee, Arturs Maskats and, in a program celebrating African-American composers, Uri Caine (The Passion of Octavius Catto), though that’s not a commission. As well, as Tony Fogg Boston Symphony Director of Artistic Planning told Brian McCreath on WCRB: ‘We’re on the home stretch of our Shostakovich symphony project’. They’ll be performing Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and Symphonies Nos. 12 and No.2, a symphony the BSO has never done before! I suppose Shostakovich cycles have become de rigeur in the past 30 years (the repertoire edges forward), but the BSO has also extended celebrated composer Thomas Adès’s partnership and climaxes their three-year alliance with Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester with a program that features soloists from both orchestras and demonstrates the combined strength of both ensembles while leaning away from ‘the specific tradition of either’.

STRAUSS Festive Prelude
HAYDN Sinfonia concertante (two soloists from each orchestra)

SCHOENBERG Transfigured Night
SCRIABIN Poem of Ecstasy

These sorts of partnerships and residencies might be a feature of northern hemisphere traffic. In Australia, orchestras go up to Asia.

I also looked at the programs of some of the other big orchestras. You could expect that the New York Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden would do special things. Their brochure says, ‘One of the most beloved and revered composers, Gustav Mahler took the subway to work at the New York Philharmonic, where he served as the tenth Music Director between 1909 and 1911. This season, the Philharmonic invites New Yorkers to get acquainted with their fellow straphanger through Mahler’s New York, featuring his first two symphonies, the one-night-only Mahler Grooves concert, a walking tour of Mahler’s New York, and more.’ In some ways, Mahler’s New York is just a rubric to cover a bundle of regular concert formats, but 2019 also sees the beginning of Project 19, where works have been commissioned from 19 women composers to mark the centenary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US constitution: ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.’ Among composers in the 2019 instalment of this project are Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Reid, Pulitzer Prize-nominee Tania Léon, Nina C. Young, Joan La Barbara, and Nicole Lizée.

It feels to me that the Chicago Symphony is the only one of the orchestras I’ve canvassed so far to really headline the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. They’re performing all nine symphonies, sometimes in ‘all-Beethoven’ concerts that I dare say will sell well. At first I thought Cleveland looked conservative – Schubert’s Third Symphony paired with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Act I – but then, looked closer: Mahler’s Fifth paired with a work by Olga Neuwirth, Brahms’ Third Symphony balanced with Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto (and it’s the Bach suite that is not part of the Friday morning repeat concert), and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, which was written to commemorate the lives lost on 9/11, is paired with Mahler’s Fourth and its child’s glimpse of heaven. The orchestra will perform works by Mary Lou Williams, George Antheil, William Grant Still, Ernst Krenek, and Erwin Schulhoff, among others. The Cleveland Orchestra is even playing a work by Michael Tilson Thomas, better known as the most recent Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.

People in the US often think of their orchestras in tiers. There’s the big five (or six or seven, I’ve always found it expands and contracts depending on where you’re standing or who you’re talking to) and then argument about where the others fit.

I had an expectation of finding more conservative programs in smaller centres but must admit that as far as I went on this survey, I didn’t do so well in confirming my prejudices. The Buffalo Philharmonic celebrates JoAnn Falletta’s 20th anniversary as music director in a season which sees them performing the Violin Concerto of Danny Elfman (of Batman and The Simpsons fame), and a co-pro with the Irish Classical Theatre on Midsummer Night’s Dream. Occasionally the Houston Symphony Orchestra offers more conservative line-ups as compared to, say, Los Angeles or Boston but even there I notice that there are slight tweaks to the repertoire – Stravinsky’s rarely-performed Scherzo fantastique to flesh out an all-Stravinsky  program for example, or Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía india to provide a more unusual addition to an Americana program of Gershwin and Copland. Even a program called Mendelssohn & Mahler brings together rarer works from both these composers – Mahler’s song-cycle Das klagende Lied in the first half followed by Mendelssohn’s Goethe setting, The First Walpurgis Night in the second. And, once again, there are composers I’ve never heard of – Gillaume Connesson, Jimmy López Bellido, Outi Tarkiainen.

The Kansas City Symphony’s opening weekend looks par-for-the-course – Sibelius’s Finlandia, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Smetana’s ‘Blaník’ from My Country, but then there’s the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg’s The Golden Spike, one of two Kansas City Symphony commissions for the season. Not all programs exhibit the sort of sophisticated concept you find with bigger orchestras, but there’s still a broadening of the repertoire. And then there is mention of Beethoven. ‘Beginning January 2020,’ writes Kansas City Music Director Michael Stern, ‘we’re celebrating 250 years of Beethoven!’ I see a Beethoven work in each program from then (even as short as the Romance in G) but interleaved with interesting commentary such as Louis Andriessen’s work for orchestra and ice-cream vendor’s bell, The nine symphonies of Beethoven and Kevin Puts’ Inspiring Beethoven. The Orchestra also celebrates the 100th anniversary of Stern’s father, Isaac.

Apart from the quite spectacular commissioning of the big orchestras and the great variety of works on offer, a lot of the seasons look very similar to what Australian orchestras would present, with operas in concert (Cleveland will do Alban Berg’s Lulu, in association with a host of Cleveland institutions; Houston will do John Adams’ El Niño) and films with live orchestras. The Kansas City Symphony is presenting Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Mary Poppins, and Pirates of the Caribbean, the Colorado Symphony is doing live screenings of Fantasia, The Goonies, Love Actually and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. American orchestras have always had a healthy attitude to popular repertoire and world music. I note that in LA, subscribers are invited to Ravi Shankar’s 100th anniversary by his daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones.

But, as I wrote, some of the orchestras have incredible commissioning programs. The BSO’s commissioning history has informed an opening gala which avoids Beethoven’s Ninth or half a dozen more-obvious opening statements. Dutch duo-pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen perform Poulenc’s Two-Piano Concerto. This is followed by Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy – okay, it was a sketch for the Ninth. But then a new work from Eric Nathan, and ending with Poulenc’s Gloria, another BSO commission from an earlier time. The whole affair is a demonstration of the orchestra (Nathan’s piece is a ‘concerto for orchestra’), its history and its resources in, say the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. ‘It touches on our great tradition of performing French repertoire,’ says Tony Fogg in that KCRB interview, ‘our wonderful history of commissions.’ Plus, he mentions that ‘Beethoven’s name is the name that stands above the proscenium of Symphony Hall, so it [the concert] really does speak to many dimensions of the orchestra.’

Composers (left to right): Nicole Lizée, Daniel Kellogg, Gabriela Ortiz


But who are all these composers I’ve mentioned? To touch on a few: Betsy Jolas was born in Paris in 1926 into a family whose circle of friends included Hemingway and Matisse. She studied in the US and back in France with Milhaud and Messiaen. Although familiar with the work of Boulez and Stockhausen her work has been tempered by her ‘passion for the voice and its expressive qualities’ according to Groves’ Dictionary of Music and Musicians which also says, ‘Another distinctive feature of Jolas’ music which crystallized during the 1960s was her approach to rhythm and metre. Taking her inspiration from both Debussy and Lassus, she “unlearnt” the traditional musical demarcation of time into strong and regular beats.’ Eric Nathan is the New England Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence. ‘The music of young American composer Eric Nathan would seem to be as diverse as it is arresting,’ says San Francisco critic, Joshua Kosman reviewing Nathan’s disc, Multitude, Solitude. Tania Léon is a Cuban-American composer who also conducts and plays. She was the first Music Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. ‘With her involvement as musical director for The Wiz on Broadway, Godspell and the music theatre works of Robert Wilson during the late 1970s and early 80s,’ says Groves, ‘León’s compositional style absorbed American influences such as jazz and gospel. In the 1980s she began to incorporate textual and rhythmic elements from her African and Cuban cultural heritage alongside contemporary classical techniques…’ Jimmy Lopez Bellido is the Houston Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence. But then there’s Gabriela Ortiz, Daniel Bjarnason, Uri Caine, Ellen Reid, Daniel Kellogg… A digest of next-year’s commissioned composers could be a separate survey.

Basically, orchestras have broadened their options these days. Of course, America is a well-populated diverse country and American orchestral offerings may reflect a broader spread, but maybe orchestral offerings are altogether better these days. I might have to give my spinning wheels one last spin and then chuck ‘em.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2019