Orchestral Bravery in Tough Times

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Symphony Orchestra + Frightening Economy = Conservative Programming. That's the traditional equation, anyway.

But now, as the economy trembles anew, the Seattle Symphony has announced the commissioning of 18 works, to be unveiled during the 2010-11 season. To honor music director Gerard Schwarz in his last season (his 26th), the orchestra has sprinkled the repertoire list with new pieces from Augusta Read Thomas, Joseph Schwantner, Aaron Jay Kernis, Daron Hagen, Samuel Jones, David Stock, Bernard Rands, Gunther Schuller, Bright Sheng, Daniel Brewbaker, Ellen Taafe Zwillich, Robert Beaser, Chen Yi, George Tsontakis, David Schiff, Richard Danielpour, Paul Schoenfield and Philip Glass.

So it's not the most daring list of names; composers were chosen for having a history with Schwarz. Almost all are American-born (all are active in America), which limits scope. It's a distinctly non-European grouping. There's a whole world of important musical ideas being generated in Germany, France, Italy, Finland and the Netherlands - not to mention the former Soviet Union - and it might have been nice to have had some of this represented.

But the Seattle project is remarkable nonetheless. It's hard to think of another orchestra that has commissioned so much in a single season. Audiences there in fact have an extremely unusual chance this year to hear a snapshot in time - a live, first-hand account of what defines a large swath of composition at this moment.

What's interesting, too, is that although there's plenty of Gershwin and Beethoven co-mingling with the Glass and Brewbaker, a lot of other newish (or still-challenging) music is getting tucked into the season at Benaroya Hall (pictured): Lieberson's Neruda Songs, Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques, Glass' Violin Concerto, and others.

The commissions are being underwritten entirely by Agnes Gund (philanthropist, art collector and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art) and Charles Simonyi (billionaire, space tourist, art collector, yachtsman, longtime-but-now-former Martha Stewart romantic partner and software engineer who, at Microsoft, oversaw development of Word and Excel). 

Why these two? Said an orchestra spokeswoman:

"Charles Simonyi has been a longtime supporter of Seattle Symphony and friend of Maestro Schwarz’s. He even performed onstage [as narrator] with the orchestra in May of 2007 for our presentation of [Bartok's] Bluebeard’s Castle. His wife Lisa is also involved with the organization and has served on the board. Agnes Gund is a good friend of the Schwarz family and, as you probably know, an avid support of contemporary art forms, including new music works."

I suspect there are some great lessons in board engagement here. Every orchestra (and conductor) could use friends like these. Clearly this season Seattle is the place to be.

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