A chicken in every pot

I hear and read this (or some variation) a lot coming from venerable classical performance organizations: We have a strong commitment to new music. Here’s the New York Philharmonic’s version:

Placing newer compositions alongside established classics has historically been one of the Philharmonic’s responsibilities to its community.

This season, the Philharmonic has two world premieres and one American premiere. The National Symphony::

By adding new works to the repertoire, the National Symphony Orchestra insures a legacy for future generations.

How are they doing? Five world premieres this season. Not bad by comparison, but that’s still out of over 100 programmed pieces. How about the home team?

Continuing the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s proud and longstanding tradition of introducing new music from the world’s most important composers, the 2006-07 season will feature the world premieres of four new works…

As you can tell, the standard commitment to new music consists of four or five new pieces a season (if that many) and a few old-school “modern” works tucked into programs as preludes to standard fare. If you mention the rather paltry smorgasbord of contemporary sounds, the usual response involves money, more specifically, its scarcity.

So what would it cost to make a real commitment to new music? I’m talking about an ensemble-commissioned piece on each concert. Sound daunting? Not really.

Let’s take the Boston Symphony, for example (since I have their schedule handy). They do about 30 concert programs a year. So here’s what you do: commission ten pieces a year. Let’s say each commission is $15,000. That might be a little cheap for the BSO, but throw in a promise to perform the piece once more within the next three seasons. So if we call the first-year commissions Y1, this is how we start off:

Year 1: 10Y1
Year 2: 4Y1
Year 3: 3Y1
Year 4: 3Y1

But then you’ll have ten second-year commissions (Y2):

Year 1: 10Y1
Year 2: 10Y2+4Y1
Year 3: 4Y2+3Y1
Year 4: 3Y2+3Y1
Year 5: 3Y2

See where this is going? Starting in the fourth season, you have 20 pieces getting their first or second performance:

Year 4: 10Y4+4Y3+3Y2+3Y1=20 concerts

What about the other ten? Well, a contractual obligation with each commission will be that, after the program’s been running for seven or eight seasons, the other ten concerts have to include a piece commissioned under the program. (You have to put it in the contracts, otherwise the marketing people will weasel out of it.) Music director’s choice: this lets you re-visit commissions that have been particularly successful or interesting or popular. We’ll call these Ywc (wild cards). So Year X looks like this:

10Yx+4Yx-1+3Yx-2+3Yx-3+10Ywc=30 concerts

So what’s this going to cost? Each year’s commissions will total $150,000. Assuming a 4% rate of return, that would require an endowed fund of $3,750,000. Let’s round it up to a cool $4 million until we see whether Bernanke has any clue about this whole inflation thing. So there you are: $4 million to have a commissioned piece on every concert. In perpetuity.

Four million dollars is a lot of money. But remember, it’s a one-time expense. And that’s for the BSO, which has an annual operating budget of around $70 million and an endowment of over $300 million. So in that case, we’re talking about a capital campaign to increase their endowment by a little over one percent. The smaller the ensemble and/or season, the smaller the capital you’d need to raise. Let’s say you’re a chamber group that does a 12-concert season. You’d need four new works every season. To commission four pieces a year at $5,000 per piece:

$20,000/0.04=$500,000 endowment

How about a community chorus that does three concerts every year? You’d only need one new piece per season:

$1,000/0.04=$25,000 endowment

Now, heaven knows there’s enough composers in the world to fill out even the largest iteration of this scheme. And it would give enough freedom so that every school and idiom and persuasion would get their innings. But it’s still a quantum leap from any current big-ticket classical (as opposed to specifically “new music”) organization’s programming. Do I think any of the old-line ensembles are going to take me up on this? I’m not holding my breath. But it’s at least a way to put commissions and premieres in financial perspective: the next time you hear sombody touting their commitment to new music, you’ll know just how much money they’d need to put where their mouth is.

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