Composing a New Symphony Audience: A Comprehensive Approach

Like most people advocating new music, my main concern has been how to get new works performed.  That has meant engaging with musicians and ensembles that champion new music and attending premieres in all manner of venues including converted factories, re-purposed speakeasies, and people’s homes.  Even though I see the same people over and over at these events, I like them all, and the music is terrific.  We all look forward to new music events with excitement.

Recent news reports that American symphony orchestras are “in trouble” and “are now charities” – hardly news – prompted me to re-think my approach to new music.  I love symphony orchestras.  There is no other musical experience like it.  The thrill can be 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.  A century of integral serialism and other astringent modernism did much to turn new music into something traditional orchestra audiences avoid.  Which prompts risk averse orchestra management to avoid it as well.  The 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).

That question launched me on research – still on-going – 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.

Even though my research continues, here is a preliminary outline of what I hope is an audacious plan to revitalize American orchestral audiences by introducing a big increase in high quality new works.

The Problem

The two-fold problem this plan tries to address: 

  1. American symphony orchestra audiences are aging and shrinking.
  2. American orchestral repertoire stagnated over the last century, playing few works by living composers.

The Goal: Implement a New Music Solution

The goal of this plan: to increase the number of works by living composers performed in mainstream (subscription) classical symphonic concerts to at least one per concert, and in the process, reinvigorate the experience of orchestral audiences.

Underlying premises on which this plan is based

  1. Symphony orchestras are worth saving.
  2. Symphony audiences are shrinking.
  3. Symphonies derive more of their income from gifts than ticket sales.
  4. Main stage symphony programs are mostly conservative and include little or no music from living composers.
  5. Many classical music audience members view new music as alien and unpleasant: “Not my thing.”
  6. When new music is programmed by orchestras, it is often performed in ‘special’ concerts or series.
  7. Symphonies are looking for new ways to attract new and younger audiences.
  8. Classical music trails other genres in tapping into the enthusiasm of younger audiences.
  9. Younger audiences for other music genres (rock, pop, jazz, etc) enthusiastically await and support newest music from their favorite performers.  For most of them, new pieces are exciting and often are the most hip.
  10. There are a significant and growing number of classical ensembles, some with flexible forces, devoted to the performance of music from living composers.
  11. There is a sizable group of young composers embracing a more eclectic and accessible approach to composing than existed through the last century.  
  12. These new music ensembles are providing increased opportunities for young composers to find their audience.
  13. Many new music ensembles have enthusiastic audiences.
  14. Young composers are mostly limited to writing for smaller ensembles as access to full orchestras is restricted.
  15. Having a living composer present when his or her piece is performed (whether premiere or not) helps humanize the music and increases audience enthusiasm.
  16. Regular exposure to new music should increase awareness, acceptance and enthusiasm.  Our human brains adapt rapidly to the new.
  17. Too few new works receive second performances.  This is not unique to our era.
  18. While there are excellent music schools who are adapting to the challenges of the classical music market, there is not a comprehensive program to bring new orchestral music to traditional and new audiences.
  19. Conservatory students and composers alike would benefit from more opportunities to collaborate.
  20. All classical music organizations are struggling for funding.  In the face of financial failure, orchestras are reluctant to risk limited resources on the unproven.
  21. None of these issues are new or surprising.  Orchestras, composers, conservatories, performers and presenters have independently tried various approaches both to encourage the creation and performance of new works, and to bring in new audiences. But as far as I can determine, there has been no comprehensive attempt to use new music as a means to rebuilding and re-energizing the classical symphony audience.

The Idea

  1. Orchestras should use new music from living composers to attract new audiences.
  2. New music should be integrated into ‘regular’ concert programs.
  3. Composers, audiences, and musicians all need to learn new skills and approaches.
  4. The goal is not to pick winners and losers, but to grow the body of contemporary works so that audiences can learn and appreciate the breadth and quality of new music.
  5. Composers need increased opportunities to hone their craft in order to provide a greater number of higher quality scores. 
  6. Orchestras cannot afford the risk of attempting audience redevelopment by themselves.
  7. This audience and program transformation is risky and will be costly.  Depending on the implementation, it could easily cost over $10 million annually.
  8. A well funded, comprehensive, multi-orchestra program offers the best chance of success.

The Plan

This plan aims to address all aspects of the two related problems (shrinking orchestra audiences and lack of living music at orchestral concerts), from the education and encouragement of young composers and performers, through the subsidized support of regular performances of new works in mainstream concert series.

  1. Engage music schools in a program to fully integrate contemporary works and new performance techniques into the orchestral performance curriculum.  
    1. Start this effort as early as possible wherever classical musicians are trained.  
    2. Include new music on every conservatory orchestra program.  Do not limit student compositions to one end-of-year blast.
    3. Especially at the graduate level, encourage active dialogue between the orchestra members, the conductors and the composers.  
    4. Expand opportunities for student composers to have their full orchestral pieces performed.  Especially after graduation.
  2. Support multi-year composer-in-residence programs to an increased number of (Music Alive from NMUSA and LAO perfectly fulfills this goal, especially if it can expand significantly).  This and the prior item are intended to allow composers to polish their craft and orchestras to develop their new music chops, in a ‘safe’ (low risk) environment.
  3. Encourage smaller market orchestras via significant subsidies to support residencies and new music programs.  This is another path for craft development aware from the glare of major markets.
  4. Subsidize the inclusion of new works on mainstream programs at all orchestras.
  5. Encourage repeat performances of recently premiered works through a subsidized Second Take program.
  6. Subsidize travel expenses to allow composers to attend as many performances of their works as they are able.
  7. Fund marketing for mainstream concerts offering new works.


Tom Service interviews Esa-Pekka Salonen:

2014-2015 Orchestral Statistics:

2015-2016 Orchestral Statistics:

Orchestra Facts:

Music Alive:

Ford Made in America:

Contemporary Classical Music Ensembles:

New Music Ensembles:

Contemporary Music in American Symphony Orchestras:

Musical Language:  or

Composers and Opportunity:

– Justus Schlichting

– 11 December 2016