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Where Did Our Musical Legacy Go?

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Several months ago, I wrote on this site about the lack of younger American talent on the podiums of major orchestras in the United States. Since there are still a couple of ensembles that have not yet announced their 14-15 season plans, the follow-up article is still in limbo.

But while I was looking at not only the artists, but the programing as well, an astonishing statistic jumped out at me. With the exception of the five usual suspects, almost every orchestra I delved into was completely devoid of most composers who laid the foundations for symphonic music in our country.

First, a bit of background. I perused the season announcements of the 15 orchestras with the largest budgets, only taking into account subscription concerts. Then I divided the American composers into two groups, those living and those deceased. The good news is that those still among us are fairly well represented these days. Out of the orchestras surveyed, five of them were scheduled to perform more than five works by composers active today. In some cases, when a composer has a relationship with a specific orchestra, there are several works by that person within the season. There remains one orchestra that is not playing even one work by any American on its subscription season.

Then came the bad news. Yes, we see a bit of Ives, Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein, and several orchestras are doing the Barber Violin Concerto. But after that, you have to look very hard to find anyone else represented from our rich classical music heritage. Four of the orchestras are not even performing one work from this canon.

America was one of the last countries to embrace the literal symphonic tradition in the 20th century. Composers such as William Schuman, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Roger Sessions, Vincent Persichetti and so many others made vital contributions to this country's culture. Virtually every orchestra and conductor, regardless of the nationality of the music director, performed their music.

How is it possible to ignore musical luminaries such as David Diamond, Lukas Foss, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thompson or the dozens of others who meant so much to this country's landscape? Aside from the occasional festival, which might try to resurrect some of these composers for one-off performances, it is doubtful that even music students today know their names.

One of the questions I am often asked by aspiring maestri is, "How can I attract attention to my conducting?" My answer is quite simple:

"Find a repertoire that is unique to you while you are studying the classics."

It would not be fair of me to speak on behalf of other conductors, but when I was starting out, I made a conscious decision to lead works by American composers, both living and deceased. There were not many others out there doing this repertoire at the time, and it provided me with ample opportunity to bring attention to both the music and myself. To this day, I and a very few of my peers continue to present some of these scores to orchestras and the public. Certainly it is fine to have fresh takes on Beethoven, Strauss, Bartok and all the others who are performed regularly. But it takes a great deal more work, research and study to find those pieces that can help put a conductor on the musical map.

Whether we look at the pre-Ivesian composers, the eccentrics, the neo-romantics and impressionists, or the edgy and innovative composers, America has had a lot to say in the world of classical music. It is an embarrassment and a shame that we are in danger of losing these traditions. Performances can no longer be left to just those of us who grew up with this music. We will not be here that much longer. New talent has an obligation to seek out what made this country a culturally strong nation.

One of the paths to the future involves traveling on older roads. And sometimes there are great discoveries to be made.