Congratulations to the 2012-13 winners of the ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming!  The winning ensembles (listed here), announced just days ago at the League of American Orchestras68th National Conference, were recognized for their dedication to expanding traditional repertoire as a way to engage audiences in both orchestral performance and contemporary music.

Check out this list of the winning repertoire — it includes symphonies and concerti, suites and oratorios, brand-new commissions and 20th-century standards, works for electronic instruments and even Native American flute.  (Click on those links to learn more about a few specific pieces!)  There are some great composers on this list — John Adams, John Williams, John Harbison, Henri Dutilleux, Krzysztof Penderecki, Joan Tower — alongside those whose names you’ve probably never heard of.  No one, not even the most reluctant audience member, can call this music old-fashioned or stuffy or boring — at least half the music on this list was written within the last three years.  Nothing old-fashioned about it.

There are definite risks involved in programming “adventurous” music.  Some contemporary music comes across to an audience as intimidating or inaccessible — usually the esoteric, atonal stuff.  Other modern pieces — generally along the lines of film or video game scores — are tonal to the point of cheesiness, and may frustrate longtime concertgoers who prefer traditional repertoire.  Then there’s the issue of economy: many contemporary pieces call for uncommon instrumentation, extra personnel, soloist fees, and/or composer commission fees.  Is opening the audience to this new repertoire worth the monetary cost of performing it?  That is — will the piece generate enough curiosity (i.e., enough ticket sales) to pay for itself?

Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers.  (See the whole booklet here.)

Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers. (See the whole booklet here.)

One trend to note is the rise of new cultural and gender perspectives in orchestral repertoire.  Dead white guys are no longer the majority.  The list of winning rep includes works by Turkish-American Kamran Ince, Grammy-winning Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, the incomparable Tan Dun of China, Brazilian-American Clarice AssadDai Fujikura of Japan, Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran,  former Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas, Roberto Sierra of Puerto Rico, and Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (famous for saying, “Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer.  But rarely at the same time”), among many, many others.  The New York Philharmonic even premiered works by ten- and eleven-year-old students in their Very Young Composers program.  The enormous variety of perspectives represented by these composers points to an increasingly global appreciation for symphonic music — not necessarily the Western music that usually dominates concert halls — and welcomes listeners of all backgrounds to discover music to which they may have a personal connection. 

What’s great about these adventurous orchestras is that the repertoire for which they won this award is not the only repertoire they play.  This very weekend, for instance, the New York Phil will be playing a concert of Haydn‘s Piano Concerto in D and conductor Alan Gilbert‘s arrangement of a Wagner quasi-medley entitled Ring Journeyright alongside Symphony No. 3 by the orchestra’s 2012-13 composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse.  Each of the orchestras honored by ASCAP manages to blend their “adventurous programming” with repertoire steeped in symphonic tradition but to which they lend just as much energy and enthusiasm as though it were composed yesterday.  The fresh excitement these orchestras bring to classical music, no matter when it was composed — that’s what makes an orchestra truly adventurous, and what all orchestras should strive for in a rapidly changing classical music world.

One final thought: one of the categories for the award is Youth Orchestras.  The winning ensemble in this category, the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio(YOSA), rocked a season that included music by acclaimed contemporary composers Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, and Arturo Márquez, as well as new works by composition students at nearby colleges.  In addition, YOSA’s concerts featured challenging standard rep vital to any music student’s education.  Giving young musicians the opportunity to work on music new and old promises a rising generation of creative, open-minded, adventurous performers who will take the classical music world by storm… and have fun doing it.