Coming to a Concert Hall Near You: A Zombie Apocalypse

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‘Tis the season for new season announcements from orchestras across the United States and already there’s a trend: dead composers. Now, I listen to dead people as much as the next guy, but I also love new music. Part of what makes classical music so great is that the new stuff builds on, refines, and yes sometimes obliterates the traditions of the past.

Aversion to new music is a relatively new phenomenon for classical music. Gone are the days of people complaining that Mozart was playing a concerto he had already played somewhere else before…or publisher Fritz Simrock putting artificially high opus numbers on Dvořák’s, Brahms’, and others’ works to pass them off as the newest (and therefore best) thing yet from these composers.

So…how are the 2015-16 seasons shaping up so far? Of the orchestras that used to be known as The Big Five (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia), three have announced. And the numbers don’t favor composers who have yet to kick the bucket.

  • Chicago: 7 living composers
  • New York: 12 living composers
  • Philadelphia: 5 living composers

(For what it’s worth, the Amarillo Symphony is playing more music by living composers (8) this year than Philly (5) or Chicago (7) will next season.)

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the current season (2014-15) for other orchestras who haven’t announced upcoming seasons yet:

  • Boston: 9 living composers
  • Cleveland: 8 living composers
  • Atlanta: 6 living composers
  • Detroit: 13 living composers
  • St. Louis: 6 living composers
  • National (D.C.): 5 living composers
  • Pittsburgh: 5 living composers
  • San Francisco: 8 living composers

I’d say the biggest surprise there is the lack of new music from such perennial modern powerhouses as the San Francisco and St. Louis Symphonies. I also had no idea Leonard Slatkin was programming so much new music (comparatively) up in Detroit.

Then there’s the LA Philharmonic. The LA Phil, which has yet to announce its 2015-16 season, will play works by 28 different living composers this year. Last season, the LA Phil played works by 26 living composers. Gustavo Dudamel is really getting in on the action, too. So far, in Dudamel’s 5.5 seasons as music director, he has conducted a total of 15 U.S. or world premieres.

What does this all mean? Is bias in favor of the dead guys a bad thing? Not necessarily. But I think it’s possible to honor the traditions of the past while also looking toward the future in a more balanced way. This not only allows us to experience new sounds, it also helps to support the creation and continuation of the art form.

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4 thoughts on “Coming to a Concert Hall Near You: A Zombie Apocalypse

  1. To your excellent point, “The Composer is Dead” (music by Nathaniel Stookey, text by Lemony Snicket) is one of the most clever pieces written. Love the concept, love the way Snookey quotes other composers. Too bad its limited to the occasuonal children’s concerts; I think a subscription audience would totally get a kick out of it.

      1. It’s totally required reading the next time the LA Phil puts it on the Symphony for Youth season . . . you know, purely for journalistic reasons . . . or maybe an “Inside the Music with Brian Lauritzen” special event!

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