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Something new

Orchestras using more commissioned works to draw concertgoers

NEW WORKS are the lifeblood of the arts, the heart that pumps vibrancy into these reflections of our society.

Philadelphia's music scene must be healthy, since this season's schedule displays at least 23 world premieres, plus a wealth of shorter, special-occasion pieces. Even in this highly conservative town, new music has become a major attraction, with audiences anticipating the discovery of a fresh voice.

Though it's impossible to quantify the effect of new music on attendance, virtually all performing groups have noticed larger audiences when presenting premieres. These debuts typically draw younger audiences who are more open to new sounds, although savvy programmers intersperse new music with more familiar pieces to hold onto their core supporters.

Let's face it, new works aren't always embraced with open ears. Riccardo Muti insisted that 100 pieces have to be played to find one masterpiece, and even great works met scathing reactions at their premieres - with Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Stravinsky's riotous "The Rite Of Spring" and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" the most notorious fiascoes.

Even highly anticipated compositions sometimes disappoint. There have been some famous works written to open major venues, like Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra" which inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, Leonard Bernstein's "MASS" that launched the Kennedy Center, and Aaron Jay Kernis' "Color Wheel" for our own Kimmel Center. None were well-received. and the Philadelphia Orchestra's six Constitutional Commissions in 1987 (one of which was deemed unplayable by three conductors) were virtually all disliked by audiences.

But that track record hasn't deterred a number of local groups who specialize in producing new music. The Network for New Music lives up to its name, having commissioned, performed or presented 550 new pieces in its 25 seasons. And new works are also a signature of Orchestra 2001. This season alone, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Settlement Music School, Lyric Fest, Temple University, Dolce Suono and many more are unveiling world premieres.

Typically, new music is funded through commissioned grants initiated by the performing ensemble, or by grants applied for by the composer to be performed by a specified ensemble. Some new music is a gift from the composer or is supported by a donation by a benefactor.

"We're like a research and development corporation for future repertoire," said Linda Reichert, Network's artistic director. "And one of our biggest thrills comes when a work we premiered has legs and is performed elsewhere. More groups are finding that new music is exciting and is a selling point. It's no longer scary for audience members, with a growing number of young people at concerts.

"For chamber music, our commissioning cost range is about $2,500 to $12,500, which we hope to increase. Fortunately, foundations like new music. Grants pay the composer, usually not our rehearsal or presentation costs, and during this economic downturn we're likely to receive about 70 percent of what we would have expected in the past.

"Our advisory board is very active, and suggests works years ahead. We believe paying composers to write the masterpieces of the future is crucial, and that's what music is about."

Besides new works by Michael Hersch, Steven Jaffe and Maurice Wright on the Network schedule, 25 composers are also donating short variations on the Diabelli waltz that also inspired Beethoven, and several young composers are creating pieces based on poetry.

They've also publicized their programs with a savvy mix of YouTube videos, a well-designed Web site, composer interviews, and podcasts, partially supported by the William Penn Foundation. Also, programs are often shown on a local cable channel.

A Network program earlier this month of works by Bernard Rands, with two pieces previously commissioned by Network, featured one whose funding was obtained through the Koussevitsky Foundation. There are many other sources, which include the Philadelphia Musical Fund Society, Meet The Composer, American Composers Forum, Chamber Music America, National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the State Arts Council. The Pew and William Penn Foundations also support some music initiatives.

"Many people don't realize that, for a modest amount, they can easily commission a piece for an ensemble or composer for which they feel an affinity," said Rands.

Network has tried many innovative approaches to reach new audiences. Last year's collaboration with artists and galleries for some concerts was a success, and its upcoming poetry project has generated interest with a whole new demographic. On Dec. 7, piano legend Leon Fleisher will conduct Network's musicians in works by Hindemith and Stravinsky.

Jan Krzywicki, Network's conductor, is also a noted composer, and his piece for guitar, soprano and string trio was played several weeks ago - but in a concert by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. "It has taken three years, but the work was composed at the request of the late guitarist Peter Segal, who loved a Purcell aria which I eventually wove into the piece."

Most of these organizations are producing entities, performing works for their own musicians, unlike the flourishing Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which is a presenter of touring artists as well as local groups. Its executive director Philip Maneval, whose "Ten Bagatelles" will receive a world premiere in March, sees premieres as an encouragement and a reward to the large number of gifted composers from our area.

"Our season has five world premieres, at least seven local premieres, and 31 works by living composers," said Maneval. "Expanding the literature with new music is a huge part of our mission, and these pieces generate interest, exposure, and prestige for us. We've presented 35 new works since our founding, each helping to enlarge our audience.

"Some patrons have felt a special connection to an ensemble, a musician or a composer, and their sponsorship led to an original work. The idea of a tax-deductible sponsorship is a wonderful opportunity, sometimes given for an occasion, anniversary or birthday, and provides lasting recognition to a donor."

For many composers, commissions put food on the table. Others, especially those in academia, are willing to offer works for a performance by an excellent ensemble - the payback is having the music performed and often includes a recording. Many of the acclaimed Orchestra 2001's premieres, by conductor James Freeman's Swarthmore faculty colleagues and those at Penn, fall into this category, with CDs being produced as a result. And some compositions are written for an occasion. On Dec. 13, for example, Orchestra 2001 concert will perform six new works to celebrate Freeman's 70th birthday.

"From our founding 21 years ago, Orchestra 2001 has stayed on mission with a mix of local works, world premieres and local premieres," said Freeman. "It's tremendously exciting to sit down with a great composer like George Crumb, and find the real inspiration behind his music. Local premieres [of previously performed works] are very important, too, because, as any composer will tell you, the second performance is the hardest to obtain.

"We've learned some major lessons through the years. Local soloists draw better than big names and, with some exceptions, composers don't attend unless their music is being played. If you present a varied program, even with new works, attendees always find something to enjoy."

For symphonic organizations like the Philadelphia Orchestra, costs are much higher, which means they have far fewer commissions. The American Music Center's suggested rate for a symphonic work is $2,000 per minute of music composed, plus copying costs, though only name composers receive that much.

Just as the Opera Company of Philadelphia sometimes shares production costs with other companies (as in the recent "Margaret Garner" and "Cyrano"), the Philadelphia Orchestra's February presentation of Richard Danielpour's "A Woman's Life" is being co-commissioned with the Pittsburgh Symphony. On Dec. 10, 11 and 12, eminent composer George Walker's Violin Concerto will be the other orchestra season premiere. Yet despite the high cost of creating new music, 89 other North American orchestras will present a total of 177 world premieres this season, as well as 24 American premieres.

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