Earlier this year, Richard Letts published an enlightening if sobering report on the state of contemporary music programming at Australian orchestras and opera houses. After reading Dick’s piece, I wondered what the situation was like in North America. Was it somehow similar? I did some digging around and uncovered a fascinating resource called the Orchestra Repertoire Report, published by the League of American Orchestras.
The League of American Orchestras is a national advocacy organization for North American orchestras and has been keeping tabs on what is being programmed in symphonic concert halls since 2000. Member orchestras, such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic, submit data on all their programming, and from this wealth of material, the League is able to track industry-wide programming and performance trends. The most recent Orchestral Repertoire Report is for the 2010-11 season and includes statistics from 62 different orchestras across North America.
While the focus of this discussion will be on North American and contemporary music programming, I did want to mention there is so much more in the Orchestra Repertoire Report 2010-11. I encourage you to browse this invaluable resource. Information from the 2010-11 concert season can be found here. Also, an archive from 2000 to 2010 seasons can be seen here.

North American Orchestral Music in the 2010-11 Season

At first glance, the number of North American composers and performances of their works in relation to all programming may seem surprisingly high. Could it really be that one third of all composers programmed in the 2010-11 season were North Americans? If we delve into the details, a trend becomes clear.

Top 10 most frequently performed North American composers
Number of performances in brackets

  1. Igor Stravinsky (86)
  2. Samuel Barber (44)
  3. Leonard Bernstein (38)
  4. George Gershwin (36)
  5. Aaron Copland (35)
  6. John Adams (19)
  7. Charles Ives (17)
  8. Philip Glass (16)
  9. Joan Tower (15)
  10. Michael Daugherty (14)

Top 10 most frequently performed works by North American composers
Number of performances in brackets

  1. Igor Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision) (21)
  2. Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings (12)
  3. George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (10)
  4. Aaron Copland: Suite from Appalachian Spring (1945 orchestration) (9)
  5. George Gershwin: Concerto in F major for Piano and Orchestra (8)
  6. Leonard Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (7)
  7. Samuel Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14 (7)
  8. Steven Mackey: Beautiful Passing (7)
  9. Igor Stravinsky: Le Chant du rossignol (6)
  10. George Gershwin: Porgy And Bess: Opera (6)

Besides Stravinsky, who is a unique case, the next four most performed North American composers are Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland, figures who aimed to communicate to the widest possible audience and whose music has been embraced by the public. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the list of most frequently performed works by North American composers, works by these four composers take seven of the ten slots (with a lone contemporary composer Steven Mackey making the list with his Beautiful Passing).

Contemporary Orchestra Music in the 2010-11 Season

The proportion of contemporary works to the total number of works is lower than that of North American music. Even so, contemporary composers represent just under one third of the total number of composers in the 2010-11 season. Orchestras favored those who tend to write in a more accessible style as can be seen below.

Top 10 most frequently performed living North American composers*
Number of performances in brackets

  1. John Adams (19)
  2. Philip Glass (16)
  3. Joan Tower (15)
  4. Michael Daugherty (14)
  5. Steven Mackey (12)
  6. Aaron Jay Kernis (11)
  7. Christopher Theofanidis (9)
  8. Jennifer Higdon (9)
  9. Michael Gandolfi (6)
  10. Adam Schoenberg (6)

Most frequently performed contemporary works (written in the last 25 years)**
Number of performances in brackets

  1. Steven Mackey: Beautiful Passing (7)
  2. Valentin Silvestrov: Elegy for String Orchestra (6)
  3. Thomas Ades: In Seven Days (6)
  4. Michael Daugherty: Route 66 (6)
  5. John Adams: Tromba Lontana, “Fanfare for Orchestra” (6)
  6. Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral (6)
  7. Edgar Meyer: Double Bass Concerto No. 1 in D Major (5)

(* In case you were wondering, the Orchestral Repertoire Report does not include summaries of the “top ten living composers worldwide most frequently performed in 2010-11” or “most frequently performed contemporary American works.”)

(**According to the Orchestral Repertoire Report 2010-2011, fifteen works were performed 4 times in 2010-11 season. In the interests of brevity, I have only listed those pieces with 5 performances or more. A more complete list of performances can be found here.)

What is surprising here is the overwhelming presence of North American composers in the list of most frequently performed contemporary works. Even in the longer list of 25 most frequently performed contemporary works, published in the Orchestral Repertoire Report, it was striking that there are no Austrian, French, or Italian composers and only two Germans (Wolfgang Rihm and Jörg Widman) represented! No doubt were we to look at contemporary music programming of a German or French orchestra, a quite different picture would emerge.

Most Popular Composers and Most Performed Pieces in 2010-11 Season

While the focus so far has been on North American and contemporary orchestral music, it is useful to place this discussion in broader context by looking at the most popular composers and pieces overall from the 2010-11 season.

Top 10 most frequently performed composers
Number of performances in brackets

  1. Beethoven (276)
  2. Mozart (252)
  3. Tchaikovsky (180)
  4. Brahms (178)
  5. Ravel (129)
  6. Dvořák (113)
  7. Sibelius (88)
  8. Prokofiev (87)
  9. Stravinsky (86)
  10. Rachmaninoff (84)

Top 10 most frequently performed works ***
Number of performances in brackets

  1. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 (34)
  2. Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (29)
  3. Tchaikovsky, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra (29)
  4. Beethoven, Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra (27)
  5. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 (24)
  6. Liszt, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra (23)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique (22)
  8. Sibelius, Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra (22)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra (22)
  10. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 (22)

(***Although not relevant to this discussion, there are a couple of things about the two lists above that strike me as surprising. Firstly, Mahler is not to be found on either list! Secondly, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is not among the top ten most performed pieces, and yet Liszt’s piano concerto is.)

Besides Stravinsky, not one North American composer makes the most popular composers list. The most performed living North American, John Adams with 19 performances, is a long way behind Beethoven’s 276, or even from number ten on the list, Rachmaninoff with 84.
No surprises here. With high operating costs and minimal government support, especially in the US, orchestras that stray too far from the core 19th- and early 20th-century repertoire do so at their peril. Still, despite these constraints, there are a number of orchestras experimenting with adventurous concert formats and exploring new media and technologies with encouraging results. In next month’s letter, I will look at a number of these innovative organizations and see how their successes might suggest future directions for the orchestra in America.

Melbourne-born musician Andrew Byrne has lived in New York for more than two decades. He is Carnegie Hall's Director, Festivals and Special Projects. As a composer and an arts programmer at Carnegie Hall, he has a unique perspective on the arts scene in the city. His letters from New York Letters are published monthly on the Knowledge Base. See archive at New York Letters for details.

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