Stories Finding a Place for American Composers

By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Earlier this month, longtime music critic Lawrence A. Johnson launched the American Music Project built on a simple premise.

“Our vast musical legacy — particularly 20th century composers — is slowly and gradually being lost,” he said. “There are a few conductors who are [performing] this music ... but otherwise it's gradually disappearing, which I think is a tragedy.”

The American Music Project is dedicated to facilitating the performance of little-played American composers in U.S. concert halls. The foundation’s inaugural concert will be held in Chicago this October, featuring the premiere of Amy Wurtz’s Piano Quintet performed by the Chicago Q Ensemble and Wurtz on piano.

Amy Wurtz 250X250
Composer Amy Wurtz

The quintet was the first piece commissioned by the nonprofit group and will be performed in three cities and recorded. A second commission will be announced in December. Johnson said the foundation will commission original works by American composers, but most of the American Music Project’s efforts and funding will go to the performance of existing music.

“Primarily we're interested in hearing from individuals, chamber groups, orchestras, opera companies that want to present existing American music that's worth [performing],” he said.

The American Music Project aims to raise $500,000 in its first year and ultimately hopes to build a standing $1 million endowment to support the performance of American music.

Historically, America has not always embraced its own classical music, generally favoring repertoire with a European pedigree in the same way diners gravitate toward a bottle of wine with a French label. Classical music was usually imported rather than home grown, and in the 19th century it was not uncommon for some American orchestras to rehearse entirely in German.

As Barrymore Laurence Scherer wrote in his history of American classical music, “Most music, from that of the earliest colonists through the work of our 19th century American composers, was usually dismissed as derivative and unworthy of serious attention. Moreover, a great deal of early- and mid-twentieth-century work simply receded into the shadows with lamentable speed.”

Johnson said there might still be an unconscious insecurity of our own music, though that has changed over the years. However, in the post-recession era Johnson believes the reason American composers like Irving Fine or Marvin David Levy aren’t being played often is probably practical and financial. A symphony by David Diamond is unlikely to sell as many tickets as one by Beethoven or a piece by a better-known American composer like Leonard Bernstein.

“So I think there's a tendency to be restrained about presenting American works [because] you have to sell tickets [and] because people don't know the music, which they don't,” Johnson said. “But it's a vicious cycle. They don't know the music because it's not performed. It's not performed because they don't know the music.”

That’s where he hopes an organization like the American Music Project can help.

“There has to be some sort of break in the logjam at some point,” said Johnson. “I think if we can facilitate and encourage more performances of American repertory … maybe in five years down the road these pieces can nudge themselves into the regular concert hall rep.

“If we heard one piece by Walter Piston, David Diamond or Peter Mennin for every 50 performances of the Candide Overture or Appalachian Spring, I don't think it would hurt anybody,” said Johnson.

The American Music Project is currently taking proposals from arts groups for performances during the 2015-2016 season. Guidelines can be found at the foundation’s website.