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Composing a New Orchestra Audience: Making New Music Old

Many newspapers reported in 2016 that American symphony orchestras were “in trouble” and “are now charities” based on a report by the League of American Orchestras. 

I love symphony orchestras.  There is no other musical experience like it: powerful, delicate, rich, visceral. To lose them would make the world an even darker, sadder place. As I read these reports, I wondered if new music might help revitalize orchestral fortunes. 

New music and orchestral concerts are almost two different worlds. New music events are small in scale, but vibrant and exciting. The tiny audience responds enthusiastically.  The subscription symphonic orchestra concerts I attend, on the other hand, can be staid affairs with the same centuries old music performed over and over. They offer few pieces by living composers.  Last century’s integral serialism and other astringent modernism did much to make new music anathema for traditional orchestra audiences.  Which prompts risk averse orchestra management to avoid new music – especially the tough kind – as well.  The aging, shrinking audience for traditional symphonic fare compounds the problem as orchestras double down on conservative program planning.

A BBC radio interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen suggested an alternative perspective: what if new orchestral works could be the kind of draw that new pop or rock pieces are, pulling new, younger audiences to symphonic concerts?  What if symphony concert-goers could become as excited about the latest piece from a living composer as their pop and rock counterparts?  What if American orchestras could build lifelong relationships with ‘local’ composers (think Vienna and Mahler)?

Those questions launched me in 2016 on a quest to research the current state of new music in the symphonic realm, about the impediments to hearing more new music there, and about what people are trying to do to increase the performance of new symphonic music. What I discovered prompted me to construct a framework I named Composing a New Orchestra Audience. CANOA for short.

What is CANOA?

CANOA (Composing a New Orchestra Audience) is a scheme – a soup to nuts program, actually – to use music from living composers to help grow and sustain large and enthusiastic audiences for symphonic concerts. It is not a breakthrough invention, but rather a collection of best practices used over the past half century.

CANOA differs from other programs promoting new music by using new music as an audience-building tool, rather than an end in itself.

CANOA builds on research into brain plasticity and education research to advocate for new music at every subscription concert.

CANOA recognizes the challenge of finding good new pieces by proposing the creation of a broad network of readings, workshops, and pipelines, to give living composers a chance to hone their craft, while enabling artistic planners the chance to discover the best new works being written.

Finally, CANOA proposes actions that can be deployed before, during, and after a premiere to ensure that new symphonic music has a real chance to survive and thrive.

What Happens if Orchestras Adopt CANOA?

The fantasy goal of CANOA is that the top 50 orchestras in the United States play a piece by a living composer at every subscription concert in a season. That would be spectacular.

Before that magical season, however, most orchestras would experience birthing pains trying to implement CANOA. Educating their existing audience, who most likely have grown up with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in the concert hall, may prove challenging. Enticing a younger audience to come hear the new repertoire may also require serious rethinking of marketing efforts. And all this presumes that the orchestral networks, pipelines, and residencies that will be essential to grooming a new generation of skilled orchestral composers are in full bloom.

What Is Happening Right Now With CANOA?

The music world – not to mention the world at large – has changed dramatically since I first began thinking about orchestras and new music. Orchestras everywhere are trying to adapt to the challenges of the new, post-pandemic world. At this moment (October, 2022), it is still not clear how the symphonic world will look even just a few years from now. Audiences are only slowly returning. Many orchestras are struggling even to survive, having done better financially during shutdown due to governmental support programs than they are now, back to being reliant only on box office and donors.

Orchestral artistic directors appear to be divided between responding to an environment that has strongly encouraged the embrace of composers from under represented groups in our society, and the desire to retreat to the safety of older, traditional repertoire. It is too early to tell how audiences will ultimately respond: will they encourage a full-on retreat into old familiar pieces, or will they remain open to the new and challenging voices of a younger generation of composers?

Despite the turmoil, a few organizations have embraced parts of the larger CANOA program. Below are a few of these efforts.

The American Composers Orchestra has vigorously renewed its commitment to finding and nurturing new talent through its Earshot and coLaboratory programs.

The Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music has an entire track devoted to teaching a select group of young composers how to write well for symphony orchestras.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has, through its brand new Sandbox Residency Program, created a much larger, safer space for composers – both established and emerging – to work closely with the orchestra in developing new works.

Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra have created the LO Creators Corp, which consists of one to three years residencies for composers to live and work in Louisville as they compose new works for the orchestra.

How Can I Learn More About CANOA?

Three documents, written over several years, contain most of my thoughts about CANOA as I did my research and learned about orchestras and the new music scene. Each was the result of, and also used to start conversations about CANOA’s core ideas. As I observed at various times, none of these ideas are New. CANOA is an amalgam of best practices, smart ideas, and thoughtful suggestions from a wide variety of people. It was always my hope that others would take the best of these ideas and, if necessary, reshape them to suit the needs of the situation.

The first represents my initial understanding of the issues and my earliest research on the subject. I sent this document to various luminaries in the orchestra world in search of guidance and support.

The second is the ‘mature’ version of the idea that I was trying to ‘sell’ to orchestra management.

The third document was written deep in the depths of the COVID pandemic, partly in response to heartening interest in these ideas from Melissa Ngan, the new CEO of the American Composers Orchestra.