Editor's note: A recent review by Thomas May praised the Icebreaker Festival by Seattle Chamber Players, featuring all contemporary composers, and urged the Seattle Symphony to do more in presenting the classical music of today. This prompted the following letter from Tom Philion, the new executive director of the Seattle Symphony. May replies below.
Thanks so much to you and Crosscut for covering the Seattle Chamber Players' recent successful festival, and your support of new music in general. I read your article with great interest, but was concerned that it might leave the reader with a notion that the music of living composers is not a high priority for the Seattle Symphony. Indeed, our commitment to new music is very high.
In the past several years, Seattle Symphony has performed large-scale works by such leading composers as John Adams, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Chen Yi and many others. Several of these projects were world premieres commissioned by the Symphony, and I say "large-scale" because new works involving the resources of a full symphony orchestra understandably require significant investment - both artistic and financial. As you may recall, three seasons ago, the symphony commissioned six new works as part of its centennial year celebration. Just two years ago, the symphony presented its unprecedented "Made in America: Part 2" festival, featuring the music of 33 living composers across eight concerts. Last year, in the first symphonic recording ever released by Starbucks, Seattle Symphony chose to record the music of seven composers written specifically for this project, intriguingly fresh re-interpretations of music by great composers of the past.
In addition to the new orchestral works and composers already announced for the current season (Sam Jones and Bright Sheng), the symphony is actively planning several others in the next 12 to 18 months, including one from composer Aaron Jay Kernis. We are also planning new chamber music by American émigré composers as part of this spring's schedule. As you know, we have presented Osvaldo Golijov's works with huge success, and later this month (I hope you plan to cover it) will perform one of his recent works, "Ayre," with Dawn Upshaw and a diverse ensemble of musicians. That performance on Feb. 29 in Benaroya Hall also includes Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile, incidental music to imaginary puppet plays" and George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae for amplified flute, cello and piano."
Recognition to this orchestra and Gerard Schwarz for adventurous programming is well-known among American orchestras. In 2004, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) presented Seattle Symphony with its First Place Award for Programming of Contemporary Music - the sixth award from ASCAP since 1989. In 2002, ASCAP recognized Mr. Schwarz as a champion of American music, saying he "exemplifies the ideal American conductor," and honored "his leadership and commitment to bring the music of our time to audiences everywhere, through his concerts and recordings."
Like you, we are concerned about the future and vitality of great music, and thank you for your support through your good work at Crosscut.
By the way, here is what Alex Ross had to say about "Ayre" in The New Yorker:
"Ayre," a new song cycle by the Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, which Deutsche Grammophon is releasing on CD on September 27th, is not only an ecstatically beautiful piece but also a radical and disorienting one. Many people, on first encountering its rasping sonorities, hurtling rhythms, and welters of lament, will be unsure whether they are listening to pop music or to classical music or to some folk ritual of indeterminate origin. However they answer, they will be right. Golijov, whose work will be celebrated at a major festival at Lincoln Center in January and February, has woven his cycle from a skein of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Sephardic material. He has enlisted the Argentinean rock producer, film composer, and guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla to give heft and color to the sound; this music jumps out of the speakers in a way that classical records seldom do. Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, delivers an electrifying performance in which she assumes a half-dozen vocal guises. Early in the record she makes a hairpin turn from a fragile, softly glowing Sephardic song entitled "Una Madre ComiÃ³ Asado" to a bloodcurdling Sardinian number entitled "Tancas Serradas a Muru"–I had to double-check the credits to make sure that Upshaw was still the singer. If a modern classical work could ever crack the Top 40, this is it: Golijov has created a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage.
Here is the reply from Crosscut's Thomas May:
Dear Mr. Philion:
Thanks very much for writing. I'm encouraged to see you share a conviction that a significant cultural obligation of the Seattle Symphony should be to encourage "the future and vitality of great music." I do, however, stand by my observation that the vital work of living composers writing concert or "art" music remains far harder to come by in Seattle than it should. This is a city, after all, with an artistically inquisitive, educated population eager to experience the most recent developments in painting, theater, film, and so on. The work of the Seattle Chamber Players is exemplary, but its impact could be much more powerfully amplified through adventurous programming from the Seattle Symphony.
Events such as the second part of the Made in America Festival, which featured the work of living composers, are indeed highly laudable, as you suggest. So, too, was the high concentration of new work in the centennial season five years ago. But the cultivation of living artists in our midst is a process that requires continual, repeated, ongoing dedication – resting on past laurels isn't sufficient.
There's a simple factual reason that the Seattle Symphony is widely considered to lag the innovatory attitude that has taken root elsewhere along the West Coast. Both the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have, for years, been making consistent efforts to expand programming beyond the traditional safe repertory. On the admittedly crude level of mere numbers, this season San Francisco has programmed nine living composers, while L.A. offers 14 (and I'm not even counting composers who are thought of as contemporary but who have recently died, such as Ligeti). The Seattle Symphony's season includes two.
Or consider a couple other orchestras that might be more comparable to the SSO (in terms of budget and city size). The Minnesota Orchestra just announced a new season that will include at least 15 living composers throughout the year, while a patron of the St. Louis Symphony can hear no fewer than five contemporary voices between now and the end of their current season.
The upcoming Golijov program with Dawn Upshaw to which you draw attention will offer an excellent opportunity for local audiences to hear this crucially important composer's recent work in a live concert, but of course Ms. Upshaw is traveling with a touring orchestra (which is also performing in California). In my tallies, I have not included any works scheduled by visiting orchestras. Looking over the 2006-07 season, there was more activity from Seattle: I find a tally of seven living composers (including a bassoon concerto by the Hollywood composer John Williams, whose film music has received widespread exposure), versus 15 performed by San Francisco's orchestra and 11 by the L.A. Phil.
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