Have a look at my desk and you’ll see a pile of CDs—Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina (Nashville Symphony) and Fire and Blood (Detroit Symphony), John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Buffalo Philharmonic), Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra), and Kaija Saariaho’s Notes on Light (Orchestre de Paris).
All are celebrated discs featuring recent works by some of today’s top composers on labels like Naxos and DG (Yes, I consider Naxos in the league of DG precisely because of its distribution of unknown and new but especially new American music). These recordings have left Christmas stockings full of Grammys in Nashville, Buffalo, and Atlanta, sending those orchestras’ profiles to new heights nationally and internationally.
How then is the PSO getting in on the action with contemporary composers and recordings?
The PSO has been amazing in bringing us resident composers including John Adams, Corigliano, Christopher Theofanidis, and Joan Tower in the last decade—even if some of those composers didn’t write major new works for us—and performing works by Jennifer Higdon, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and David Del Tredici.
But, the PSO didn’t launch the career of any of those composers and isn’t closely associated with one who is already established. The PSO doesn’t have its name etched into history with benchmark recordings like the San Francisco Symphony has with John Adams, or the Atlanta Symphony with the “Atlanta school of composers”: Theofanidis, Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, and Higdon. We get our new music “secondhand” from other orchestras, like a newspaper that reprints the wire reports from the AP.
The PSO has an intriguing opportunity with Joan Tower and will premiere a new work, Stroke, in concerts conducted by Honeck May 13-14. The PSO has a chance to lay “claim” to Tower, a major composer, if it can give a definitive performance of a premiere and record it and other of Tower’s milestone works. Keep performing her music, take it on tour, and commission more. The PSO may already have missed the boat on capitalizing on Tower’s music—Leonard Slatkin, one of our guest conductors, and the Nashville Symphony recorded her Made in America and won the 2008 Grammys for Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album, and Best Classical Composition.
The PSO is clearly missing out on opportunities to write itself into music history by putting its weight behind composers. Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Bartok’s popular Concerto for Orchestra and Messiaen’s influential Turangalîla-Symphonie into the canon and the Philadelphia Orchestra did the same for Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Leonard Bernstein helped bring Mahler’s symphonies into style in the United States.
Manfred Honeck has gotten behind the forgotten composer Walter Braunfels, whose music we’ve now heard in Pittsburgh several times and will hear on June’s finale program, but we’ve yet to see the recording that snags our orchestra Grammy awards. Leonard Slatkin, principal guest conductor of the PSO since 2008, is a modern-day Leonard Bernstein in championing American music, and hopefully we’ll see him make some great recordings with us.
On the recording front, we have a few discs to document Honeck’s tenure with the PSO, which has also been celebrated by the international press when the orchestra has toured. But even if it’s not new music, hopefully we’ll see many Honeck/PSO recordings in the next few years. The dearth of Mariss Jansons/PSO recordings is a great shame.
Next season the PSO will host Steven Stucky and premiere a new work in 2012. Hopefully, the PSO will record a definitive disc of his works that will bring us a heap of Grammy awards.