Good news


I said some harsh things about the state of new music in the mainstream classical world – especially the orchestra world – in my post about the Toronto Symphony.


So here’s a most encouraging response from Curt Long, executive director of the Dayton Philharmonic:


I would say that we include a “moderate” amount of new music in our classical season, balanced with more traditional repertoire (of course, most orchestra’s don’t even include a moderate amount).  We present a classical series of 9 programs annually, with usually 4 or 5 more-or-less contemporary works.  We have won ASCAP awards 4 out of the last 5 years.  Last year our series included the Corigliano Symphony No. 1, Oliver Knussen’s Horn Concerto, a world premiere of a short new minimalist work by Thomas Svoboda, and Karel Husa’s Music for Prague, 1968 (which is, obviously, far from “new”).  The year before that, we presented 4 new 17-20 minute works that we had commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight (from Bill Bolcom, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Schelle, and Steven Winteregg).  The year before that, Rouse’s Die gerettete Alberich, Torke’s Bright Blue Music, Hanlon’s The Lullaby of My Sorrows, Adams’ El Dorado, and Svoboda’s Oriental Echoes.  Any time we play a contemporary piece we inevitably hear from a few very disgruntled patrons.
At the end of this past season we asked our audience to repond to an e-mail survey that, among other things, gave them the chance to rate their satisfaction with our classical season programming in general, and for each specific program.  We got 388 responses (obviously, not a random sample, and almost certainly skewed towards “highly involved” audience members, but nevertheless a significant chunk of the overall audience).  This is some of what we found:
In response to the statement “Overall, I like the DPO classical programming”
strongly agreed = 138
agreed = 179
were neutral = 25
disagreed = 6
strongly disagreed = 2
When given the chance to rate specific programs,
Knussen program
Very Satisfied = 74
Satisfied = 62
Neutral = 11
Disatisfied = 2
Very Disatisfied = 1
Husa and Svoboda program
Very Satisfied = 116
Satisfied = 43
Neutral = 10
Disatisfied = 6
Very Disatisfied = 2
Very Satisfied = 82
Satisfied = 60
Neutral = 9
Disatisfied = 9
Very Disatisfied = 5

Curt doesn’t read grandiose implications into these results, but quite reasonably says, “I think they do refute any assertion that an overwhelming majority of our audience would like to see no contemporary music on our series.”


I’ll add a mea culpa. What I wrote was too narrowly focused on large orchestras. But when I’ve looked at smaller orchestras’ programming, I’ve been happy to see that some of them play a lot of new music. When I wrote my post, I simply (but not excusably) forgot that. Thanks, Curt, for setting me right.


Why can smaller orchestras do so much new music, with a better reaction from their audience than larger orchestras seem to get? Some theories: 

  • Smaller orchestras play more accessible new music than many large orchestras do. You won’t find much Harrison Birtwistle on their programs.

  • Smaller orchestras do fewer concerts, so their audience may get more interested in anything they play, and might have more time to prepare for it.

  • Smaller orchestras have more contact with their audience than larger orchestras do. Or at least can have more contact, if they know how to get it. So they have more chance to get their audience interested. 

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