Getting Over the Shock of the New: Contemporary Symphonic Music Is Coming Of Age

By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine

“There is a creepy bloodlust to the doom-mongering of classical music, as though an autopsy were being conducted on a still-breathing body,” William Robin wrote in the New Yorker in a 2014 article about perpetual reports of the genre’s death. “What if each commentator decided, instead, to Google ‘young composer’ or ‘new chamber ensemble’ and write a compelling profile of a discovery?” 

That’s good advice, especially since young composers are providing an infusion of new blood into the modern orchestra. Sure, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms continue to dominate the calendars of most orchestras, but anecdotal evidence suggests that new symphonic music is making slow-but-steady inroads at the concert hall. That is due, in part, to the efforts of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, a former director of the 57-year-old Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music; Michael Tilson Thomas, who two decades ago championed 20th-century music through his influential American Mavericks series; former L.A. Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tilson Thomas’ soon-to-be replacement at the San Francisco Symphony; and a host of other visionary conductors.

These days, the modern orchestra is starting to reflect the times.

Case in point: The New York Philharmonic, under principal conductor Jaap van Zweden, recently launched Project 19, a sprawling, multi-season initiative to commission and premiere 19 new works by 19 women composers to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. 

It is the largest women-only commissioning initiative in history. 

According to the New York Phil website, Project 19 was born of the conviction that “an orchestra can participate in conversations about social imperatives and even change the status quo.” Through Project 19, the Philharmonic can mark a “tectonic shift in American culture,” noted president and CEO Deborah Borda, by giving women composers a platform and catalyzing representation in classical music and beyond. 

Project 19 launched in February with the first six world premieres. The orchestra will premiere the rest of the works in future seasons.

Indeed, a look at major orchestras around the United States shows that contemporary symphonic works are slowly, but surely, making inroads into program schedules. For example, subscribers to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2020–21 season can expect a generous serving of Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin. But the orchestra also will perform two world premieres of CSO-commissioned works by American composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, as well as the first CSO performances of Her Story, by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Julia Wolfe. And guest conductor Tilson Thomas returns to present the CSO’s first performances of his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind in December. First performed in 2016, Tilson Thomas’s semi-staged work is set to the poem of the same name by Carl Sandburg, and features a mixed ensemble of vocalists, a “bar band” complete with electric guitars and drum set, as well as a chamber orchestra featuring solo turns for most of the musicians. 

Meanwhile, British conductor and composer Thomas Adès will make his CSO podium debut and will conduct the first CSO performances of his Concerto for Piano, featuring Kirill Gerstein, for whom the concerto was written. 

“Classical music is a living art form in constant development,” says Seattle Symphony music director Thomas Dausgaard, who also is chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. “Just as we see our time mirrored in contemporary literature, theater, dance, art, film, and architecture, contemporary symphonic music offers insights into what the giant band of a symphony orchestra is today. And that perception of what an orchestra is can change drastically as new instruments might be added, new sounds and shapes developed, visuals added, and our sense of time is challenged.”

Dausgaard’s faith in the revitalization of classical music is grounded in this generation of young composers. “As performers, we are often reminded by living composers how important it is for them that what they actually wrote down in detail is being respected, however challenging it might be to achieve it,” he says. “That alertness to what the composer actually wrote, rather than what might have become standard practice, is an inspiration for me when working on music by dead composers we can no longer ask questions of. So much of what we perform is written by people long gone; it can be frustrating never to be able to ask them, never to see how their faces light up when they hear their music coming to life. 

“So what a joy it is as performer and audience to be around living composers and enrich the experience of hearing and performing their music with the possibility of getting to know them!”

In keeping with William Robin’s challenge “to Google ‘young composer’ and write a compelling profile of a discovery,” Strings asked several young composers about the state of the art of new symphonic music, including the challenges of getting their music performed. 


Anna Clyne 

Anna Clyne photo: Jennifer Taylor
Anna Clyne. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The London-born, Grammy-nominated composer of acoustic and electronic music has been hailed by Time Out, New York as “dazzlingly inventive.” Her symphonic work includes The Seamstress for violin and orchestra.

We are in a period of transition in terms of an openness to bringing contemporary orchestral music into the standard repertoire in a meaningful way. Music directors who are savvy to the fact that contemporary music is vital for the continuing development of the art form are leading the path for receptiveness. I’ve had the chance over the years to work with such visionary music directors as Marin Alsop, Cristian Măcelaru, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is important that the art form continues and develops with the times—that it explores new techniques and new technologies whilst also re-examining and re-imagining its past. 

Contemporary compositions for the orchestra keep the symphonic landscape vibrant, alive, and relevant to the modern-day audience that spans generations. It provides a connection to both the past and the future, and audiences are ready and eager to expand their musical experiences. Yet, orchestral works that incorporate non-traditional elements such as electronics—sampling, pre-recorded tracks, live processing, and so on—can be more challenging for orchestras with lower budgets, or orchestras that are touring. 

I have received a lot of positive feedback from audience members. Some works of mine, like Within Her Arms, have particularly struck an emotional chord with people—I’ve often had audience members approach me after a concert to share how moved they were and how the music spoke to their own personal experiences. My hope, and intention, is that I compose music that invites an audience in rather than alienates them.

Judd Greenstein

Judd Greenstein
Judd Greenstein

The American composer and co-director of New Amsterdam Records is the curator of the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York’s Merkin Hall and a founding member of the NOW Ensemble. His works have been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival, and the North Carolina Symphony, among others.

Writing new work keeps the orchestra from being a museum piece—and allows for real dialogue between the past and the present. It also allows for a diversity of voices in the orchestra repertoire, given the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the standard repertoire, and the unwillingness of orchestras to explore works by female and non-white composers from the past. New orchestral music is the most exciting thing that is happening in the symphonic landscape! If you love the orchestra, there’s something new that you will absolutely love, as well. It’s just a matter of seeking it out, but the reward is totally worth it. 

It’s very hard to get second or third performances of orchestral works. There aren’t avenues for commercial recordings, in most cases, so you’re reliant on live recordings to “sell” the work to a conductor, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a recording at all.I think the climate is good for music directors who want to program new work. Audiences are becoming less suspicious of new work on a program, and are actually seeking it out. I believe that if the orchestra is to survive, it will be through embracing and celebrating the new.

Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor
Mark O’Connor

Fiddler, violinist, and composer O’Connor has worked in a variety of genres, from bluegrass to jazz to classical. His orchestral works include 2009’s Americana Symphony. He is the author of a series of method books and videos based on his new American school of string playing.

I simply felt a calling to write new symphonic works beginning in the early ’90s, which led to me quitting my day job as a Nashville session player. I have composed nine concertos, two symphonies, and a few overtures and suites to date, my concertos having been performed over 700 times with symphony orchestra. It is a remarkable number considering the status quo for new pieces, with my Fiddle Concerto remaining the most performed violin concerto composed in the last 60 years. 

When I first began to introduce my pieces to the symphonic landscape, the primary hurdle was to convince orchestras that there was something else to play besides the classical warhorses and masterpieces from Europe. Today, the orchestra scene has sold out to the rock, pop, movie soundtrack, and video-game concert franchises, saving precious few performances for classical masterworks at that. You would have a better chance of seeing a percussion concerto programmed than any new cello concerto today. Why? When you can hire an impersonator of the pop star Prince from Vegas, or a Led Zeppelin cover band for $10,000 and sell out three nights with the Pittsburg Symphony, it’s a win for the pocketbook and, of course, a loss for great art and instrumental music for the orchestras. 

I have caught a few of those performances to check them out—what a waste of 80 talented musicians! They are largely buried by the rock band fronting them. I still hope my most recent works, Americana Symphony and Improvised Violin Concerto, become a bigger deal like I hoped they would be. For me, they both should be more popular than my Fiddle Concerto, but maybe the bandwidth is such that there is only room for a few success stories at once? I hope not. 

The Charlotte Symphony recently programmed my Americana Symphony alongside of Gershwin and Copland for an all-American program. It was great for me. Two nights at about 75 percent house. Therefore 3,000 people got to hear my music in all its glory next to the American legends in all their glory. What’s not to love about that? 


Cheryl Frances-Hoad 

Cheryl Frances-Hoad
Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The British composer’s works have been commissioned by the BBC, the Surrey Philharmonic, and the Manchester International Cello Festival, among others.

Every genre of music is a living art form, from church music to electro-acoustic music, so it’s vital that contemporary composers keep adding orchestral repertoire to the canon. The ideas that can be expressed, and sounds created, by a symphony orchestra are inexhaustible, so there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t continue to write reams of music in the 21st century. I think it’s vital, in order to keep the art form alive, that modern works are created, even if the classics still put more “bums on seats.” 

Who knows what the classics of the future will be? But I think contemporary music can be accessible and appealing to the vast majority of concertgoers—perhaps all that is needed sometimes is a “way in”—non-stuffy preconcert talks with composers, talking in plain English, and so on, are great. I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that they didn’t think they liked contemporary music, but they liked the piece of mine they just heard. If we can present contemporary works in an accessible way, without dumbing down, then there is no reason why contemporary works should not stand alongside the classics of the genre. 

In the UK we are lucky to have a vibrant contemporary music scene —there is always room for improvement, but organizations like the BBC, the largest commissioner of new music in the UK, are a total godsend. 

Mason Bates

MasonBates, photo: Ryan Schude
Mason Bates, photo: Ryan Schude

The innovative DJ and composer has been at the forefront of the effort to bring modern electronic music to the classical concert hall. His 2012 Violin Concerto for violin and orchestra was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and premiered in 2012 by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.

The orchestra has infinite possibilities, and it will remain the definitive medium for deep musical expression. Long past the death of modernism and the overreactions to it, we’re at a fascinating moment when composers are using the orchestra with more freedom than in any previous era. I love concerts that time-travel, passing through three or four centuries in a two-hour period—including new works is just as important as including old works. Orchestral musicians and conductors are far more innovative than they get credit for, but they receive a lot of micro-managing from unimaginative marketing departments. That’s usually the pushback against new music. 

Are music directors becoming more receptive to programming new orchestral works? Absolutely, just look at Yannick in Philly, MTT in San Fran, Dudamel in L.A.—to name just a few obvious standouts. The real measure of the orchestra world is on the next tier, in places like Colorado [Brett Mitchell], Memphis [Robert Moody], California [Donato Cabrera], and New Haven [Alasdair Neale]. American conductors know how to bring new works to audiences, and they are doing so in lots of beautiful ways. I’m fortunate to have started early, and symphonic audiences feel a bit like family to me. It means a lot to me that orchestras and audiences have embraced my electro-acoustic sound world.

Dobrinka Tabakova

Dobrinka Tabakova
Dobrinka Tabakova

The Grammy-nominated British/Bulgarian composer is the winner of the Lutoslawski Composition Prize and the composer of a viola concerto, among other orchestral works.

I remember hearing John Adams’ [1985] Harmonielehre as a student and being so inspired by the possibilities of still being able to “comment” on what has come before, and, at the same time, saying it with a voice of your time and immersing yourself in that sound world for a substantial length of time. Symphonic works allow composers to create large structures, for their sound worlds to inhabit larger spaces. 


I am particularly aware of this at the moment, as I am writing a Concerto for Orchestra as part of my residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The first movement, Tectonic, premiered last year and I am now working on the second and third movements. Creating a work on that scale, which is completely abstract, with no narrative or text, allows the ultimate artistic freedom. In order to continue our appreciation of what it takes to create music on that scale, we need to keep the thread of creativity alive. For example, I’ve written a number of works for choir and orchestra, and involving that many people in the performance of a new work certainly makes a difference in the awareness of new music.

In the last six or seven years, I have had extremely fruitful associations with two orchestras: the Orchestra of the Swan, based in Shakespeare’s home town; and since 2017, the BBC Concert Orchestra. I have had a relatively steady journey to get to this point, writing mostly chamber and chamber-orchestra pieces before that, working closely with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Britten Sinfonia, and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. I have always preferred to write for musicians I know personally. I treat writing for orchestras the same way—I like to know the musicians. 

Having the support of these orchestras has meant that the music I have written for them becomes part of their repertoire, like the fanfare Orpheus’ Comet, which I wrote for the European Broadcasting Union’s 50th anniversary in 2017, or the most recent Prom piece, Timber & Steel, for Sir Henry Wood’s 150th anniversary. But orchestral performances are not easy, as most works written by living composers carry extra weight if they are a premiere. 

What is important for the longevity of the genre is to create “modern classics” and make the “novelties” in the program familiar to the audience. [Still], in some respects, programming of new music has found a formula as an opener or a “novelty,” but increasingly there are more adventurous offerings. 

Angélica Negrón

Angelica Negron
Angelica Negron

This imaginative Puerto Rican–born composer, conservatory-trained violinist, and multi-instrumentalist writes music for accordions, toys, and electronics as well as chamber ensembles. She has been commissioned by the Albany Symphony, Bang on a Can All-Stars, A Far Cry, MATA Festival, loadbang, The Playground Ensemble, and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. Her music has been performed at the Kennedy Center, the Ecstatic Music Festival, EMPAC, Bang on a Can Marathon, and the 2016 New York Philharmonic Biennial. 

The symphonic repertoire needs to also reflect the times we live in, and living composers are an essential part of this. Listeners also deserve the chance to choose from a wide, varied palette of offerings that’s not just limited to the classical canon. The orchestra is a fantastic medium for composers to explore new sonorities, timbres, and different ways of telling stories. I’m constantly amazed by the infinite possibilities of the same instruments we’ve been hearing for so many centuries, and I want to hear what other composers have to say with this exciting medium as well. 

I do feel that over the past few years there have been important initiatives that are tackling the lack of representation from not only living composers but also women and other historically underrepresented and marginalized artists. I think this is a great beginning and I’m hopeful more orchestras feel the urge to follow this shift, but I believe what’s most important is that these initiatives don’t end with the project itself but rather create new structures that will allow for these voices to be represented and heard beyond the duration of the project. 

New music can reinvigorate the orchestra and connect to new audiences that expand beyond the usual concertgoers. The more diverse the programming, the better the chance for people to see and hear themselves in the music. Living composers sharing their stories and finding new, imaginative ways of composing for the orchestra have an incredible potential to connect to listeners, who will hopefully come back for more new music and might also be empowered to create something themselves. 

I just heard the New York Philharmonic premiere of Tania León’s new piece “Stride” as part of Project 19, and I heard a sound I’ve never heard before, which made me so engaged, curious, and excited. It’s moments like this that make me eager about creating and listening. The possibilities are endless if we just create the space for these voices to be heard. I am encouraged that it seems that a significant shift is starting to happen [in programming new symphonic music], but it’s not nearly enough. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and I’m looking forward to the day when it’s not a novelty to program or commission a new piece by women or other underrepresented composers. I’m looking forward to the day in which this is the new normal.