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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.  But new music and orchestral concerts are almost two different worlds.  The subscription symphonic orchestra concerts I attend 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.

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 on research about the current state of new music in the symphonic realm, about the impediments to more new music there, about what people are trying to do to increase the performance of new symphonic music.

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 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.

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.