Composers in the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Commissions Program, a project of the League of American Orchestras in partnership with American Composers Orchestra. Clockwise from top left: Anna Clyne (credit: Christina Kernohan), Sarah Gibson (credit: Aaron Fullerton), Angel Lam (credit: Eric T. Carlson), Arlene Sierra (credit: Ian Phillips McLaren), Gity Razaz, and Wang Lu.

In Brief | This season ushers in several bold, highly collaborative commissioning projects at orchestras that aim to connect with communities while lifting up BIPOC, women’s, and nonbinary voices and spotlighting critically important contemporary issues.

Fortunate is the composer hired to write a piece for a professional orchestra, perhaps including travel to the orchestra’s hometown for rehearsals and a brief residency. But Kentucky’s Louisville Orchestra is crafting something far more extensive—and potentially transformative—for the three American composers who have been invited to move into the city’s tree-lined Shelby Park neighborhood, two miles southeast of the orchestra’s downtown location. In the orchestra’s new Louisville Creators Corps project, the composers will live in the city for a minimum of 30 weeks a year for up to three years, creating music while mingling actively in Louisville’s diverse cultural scene.

Announced in March 2022, the landmark Louisville Orchestra Creators Corps project includes a $40,000 annual salary for each of the three inaugural composers: Lisa Bielawa, TJ Colę, and Tyler Taylor. The residencies come with health insurance coverage, free housing and studio workspace, and the rare opportunity to write music for the orchestra while being continually present in the neighborhood. Whether listening, jamming, or otherwise responding as they see fit, they will be drawing inspiration from the local environment.

Louisville’s program is just one of several blockbuster commissioning projects by American orchestras that together usher in exciting new works by a fresh mix of composers from all backgrounds. Many of the projects involve multiple partners and funders, and all are designed for widespread impact:

  • The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Commissions Program, a project of the League of American Orchestras in partnership with American Composers Orchestra. The program seeks to increase the programming of works by women composers on orchestra stages. Six women have been commissioned to write new works; each of these works will receive its world premiere by a lead orchestra; the work will then be performed by four additional orchestras for a total of 30 composer/orchestra pairings through 2024-25. (In all, there will be more than 30 performances since many of the orchestras will program the piece on two or three dates.)
  • To mark its 50th anniversary season, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts launched The Cartography Project, led by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Center’s Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact. Bamuthi (as he is known) is a spoken-word poet, dancer, playwright, and actor. He says the project’s goal is to commission composers of color from U.S. communities that have suffered deadly violence “by mapping Black dignity rather than Black trauma as the narrative.” The National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, resident companies at the Kennedy Center, are among the commissioning groups.
  • New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices project aims to increase representation of women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) composers through shared commissions by multiple orchestras, creating a blitz of geographically dispersed performances in short order. The program was kick-started with a contribution from the Sphinx Venture Fund and additional support from the Sorel Organization, the Toulmin Foundation, and industry partners ASCAP and Wise Music.

These blockbuster initiatives are hardly alone; they join ongoing programs now underway, such as the Emerging Black Composers Project, a ten-year commitment launched in 2020 by the San Francisco Conservatory and the San Francisco Symphony; Reno Philharmonic’s climate-themed commissioning initiative, begun in May 2022 with Jimmy Lopez Bellido’s Altered Landscape and seeking additional orchestral partners; Mason Bates’s Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra for orchestra and animated film, aimed at young audiences, with participating orchestras including Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and American Youth Symphony; and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Spano Fund for New Music Fund, named after former Music Director Robert Spano (the Fund aims to become a commissioning endowment in perpetuity).

Many of these projects take their cues from the League of American Orchestras’ Ford Made in America program, a mega-consortium, launched in 2007, involving small-budget orchestras in all 50 states that pooled funding to commission and perform Joan Tower’s Grammy-winning composition Made in America.

Living and Composing in Louisville

Louisville’s Shelby Park area, where the Louisville Orchestra’s Creators Corps composers will live and hang out, is approximately two miles east of downtown Louisville. The neighborhood is known for its cultural mix, great jazz tradition, century-old camelback and shotgun-style homes, many churches, and a year-round indoor market with artisanal beers and eateries. “Our Creators Corps has got a little bit of the WPA project feel to it,” says Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams. “I think of the way Nashville became the center of bluegrass, or how Bach was a church composer in Leipzig, or how Haydn had all sorts of musical duties at the court of Esterhazy,” Abrams adds. “And I think of broader cultural shifts like how jazz became a cultural phenomenon, or how New York became a center of theater, or LA for the film industry. It’s the sort of thing that can happen here. This is very exciting.”

Composers in the Louisville Orchestra’s Creators Corps will live in the city for many weeks each year while writing music and participating in the city’s diverse cultural scene. From left: Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams with Creators Corps composers Lisa Bielawa, Tyler Taylor, and TJ Cole. Photo by O’Neil Arnold.

Louisville’s first Creators Corps includes Rome Prize winner Lisa Bielawa, 54, a composer, entrepreneurial vocalist, and producing powerhouse who co-founded the New York City-based MATA Festival with Philip Glass and Eleonor Sandresky in 1996. Her fellow Creators Corps composers are TJ Cole, 37, a singer-songwriter with the synth-pop band Twin Pixie, which focuses on queerness, pop culture, and the supernatural; and Louisville composer and horn player Tyler Taylor, 30, whose music fuses classical with hip-hop and R&B.

The launch of the Creators Corps signals the Louisville Orchestra’s ongoing resurgence and recovery, after financial struggles a decade ago that included a 2011-12 work stoppage. More recently, the city was roiled by widespread protests after Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor in a deadly raid at her home in 2020.

The orchestra’s chief executive, Graham Parker, says he sees a historic throughline in Creators Corps and the orchestra’s role in the life of the city. “I have started to understand something very specific about this orchestra that stems from its founding in 1937,” Parker says. “The orchestra was born back then out of the crisis of catastrophic flooding, and the question of whether the city could even be rebuilt. Our mayor [Greg Fischer] has made it clear that he sees our orchestra as one of Louisville’s essential parts, and that there exists a sense of ownership by the city, a feeling of connection, but also pride at always being on the edge of what’s new.

Louisville Orchestra Chief Executive Graham Parker sees a historic throughline in the orchestra’s Creators Corps program and the orchestra’s role in the life of the city since its founding in 1937. Photo courtesy of Louisville Orchestra.

“Our Creators Corps has got a little bit of the WPA project feel to it,” says Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams, shown here with the Louisville Orchestra. “I think of the way Nashville became the center of bluegrass, or how Bach was a church composer in Leipzig.” Photo by O’Neil Arnold.

“We have a rap school for young teens in one of the most disenfranchised parts of Louisville,” Graham continues. “Our mayor called on Teddy and me after the death of Breonna Taylor with the objective of asking, ‘How can we heal?’ So, I think this orchestra has been a community bridge and community binder for a long time.”

A three-year $750,000 Mellon Foundation grant will help to test the Creators Corps model, which the orchestra’s 35-year-old music director thinks of as a 21st-century response to Louisville’s First Edition commissioning and LP-recording project. Founded in 1937, First Edition brought new American classical music to international prominence. That project, launched with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, generated more than 400 new works, recorded on 84 albums on the orchestra’s own label, First Edition Records.

In a YouTube video explaining the focus of Creators Corps, Abrams says the project is about “an experience of giving our audiences and our community a relationship with composers that are right here in their town. This is a huge deal not just for the Louisville Orchestra, but for Louisville.” The plan is for composers to collaborate not just with the orchestra but with local musicians and community members as well. Dates of Louisville Orchestra premieres of new works by Lisa Bielawa, TJ Cole, and Tyler Taylor will be announced.

In Washington, D.C., Mapping Black Dignity

Marc Bamuthi Joseph was hired as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact in 2019. When Bamuthi joined the leadership team, he was considered central to the initiative to increase the national monument’s campus expansion and broaden its social impact. Bamuthi set his sights on some fundamental paradigm shifts in a multi-year, open-ended initiative called The Cartography Project.

The project currently includes eight commissions for small groups of performers from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera—both resident ensembles of the Kennedy Center. Planned Cartography Project commissions for the NSO include Anthem for GO by Jessica Mays, Ahead of Time by Nathaniel Heyder, and Breonna’s Lullaby by Derek Douglas Carter. Among WNO commissions will be operas by B.E. Boykin, Liz Gre, Jens Ibsen, and Jasmine Barnes. Bamuthi describes “cartography” in this sense as a mapping of Black dignity by including bold new works by creators from communities that have suffered racial trauma, such as Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Louisville.

A multi-part documentary series about the Cartography Project.

It’s at The REACH, the new performance and community space at the Kennedy Center, that some of the first Cartography Project world premieres were given in March 2022. Among these are Mo(u)rning by Atlanta composer B.E. Boykin and librettist Brittny Ray Crowell; Progeny of Perpetual Innocence by Minneapolis composer Liz Gre and librettist Junauda Petrus-Nasah; and Bamuthi’s own The Road Ahead, with music by Carlos Simon, the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence. National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera ensembles performed the small-scale works. In all, 50 premieres are planned. Dates and details of additional Kennedy Center commissions are yet to be announced; some of the initial ones, Bamuthi said when we spoke this summer, will involve partnerships with performing arts organizations in Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, and Seattle.

“In envisioning what the Kennedy Center could do, I sought out artists in the classical realm in places like Oakland and Baltimore and all these difficult cities,” Bamuthi says. “This institution is a national center that is about more than what happens here in this historic building that opened in 1971 as a solid square fortress full of high chandeliers. How are we supposed to behave when we lean back in our seats in a dark space with a high ceiling after walking along a red carpet?

  • Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center, says that the Cartography Project’s goal is to commission composers of color from U.S. communities that have suffered deadly violence “by mapping Black dignity rather than Black trauma as the narrative.” In photo, Bamuthi delivers spoken-word text he wrote for The Road Ahead, with music by Kennedy Center Composer in Residence Carlos Simon. Photo by Jati Lindsay.
  • As part of the Kennedy Center’s Cartography Project, tenor Martin Bakari performs Mo(u)rning, with music by B.E. Boykin and libretto by Brittny Ray Crowell. Photo by Jati Lindsay.
  • Composers Carlos Simon, Derek Douglas Carter, and Nathaniel Heyder at a recording session of works they wrote for the Kennedy Center’s Cartography Project. The initiative currently includes eight commissions for soloists and musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

“Something about that environment does suggest the sublime we are about to see,” he says. “Does it also establish or reestablish certain norms? Is it constructive? Constrictive? Is it illuminating? Eliminating?” For Bamuthi, the Kennedy Center’s new 17-acre REACH area, with interconnected pavilions, studios, and flexible areas, “has curves and corners that invite surprise and invention.” Bamuthi says the REACH “has been the home for a lot of what I do in terms of social space, and it was the home for many of the Cartography Project performances that you can see on videos.” The largest room, called Studio K, handles a crowd of 250 in a club format ideal for hip-hop, comedy, jazz, and contemporary styles.

“We create belonging in all kinds of ways,” Bamuthi says. “Given the racial timeline in 2020, the common practice may have been to engage a Black performer. But without a paradigm shift internally, and a model to go with it, we are kind of doing this thing of Itinerant Gets a Performance. So let’s do this thing. But let’s also go ahead and make a model more like a pipeline approach, related to commissioning and allyship. That is particularly important in the nation’s capital, which has all kinds of symbolic power. Figuratively speaking, we are mapping the incidents of violence, but are we also mapping the possibility of who we can be.”

Commissions and Multiple Performances of New Scores by Women Composers

The Sarasota Orchestra’s late music director, Bramwell Tovey, who died in July, was a composer himself who looked forward to conducting the premiere of a new work by 36-year-old composer Sarah Gibson on March 31, 2023. “It would have been Bramwell’s first full year as music director,” says Joseph McKenna, the Florida-based orchestra’s longtime president and CEO. “I knew him as a fine artist who was consistently excited about bringing another perspective. He said it is always appropriate to close the season with new music, because it’s not the close of anything—it’s the launch of a new season.”

Though sadly Tovey will not be present to hear Gibson’s new work, to make this mountain taller, guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto will fill in to conduct the Sarasota Orchestra’s world premiere in March 2023. The commission is one of many around the U.S. funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program for women composers, which will generate a blast of new music by women and nonbinary composers between now and 2025. The program is the new iteration of the League’s long-running Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program (originally known as the Women Composers Readings and Commissions program), and is embedded in EarShot, an initiative of American Composers Orchestra in collaboration with American Composers Forum, the League, and New Music USA. The six current commission recipients were selected from women and non-binary composers who have participated in EarShot residencies.

“To have a commission that gives you a platform like this, with a confirmed premiere and multiple performances, is just huge,” says composer Sarah Gibson, whose to make this mountain taller will be given its world premiere by Florida’s Sarasota Orchestra in March 2023 as part of the League of American Orchestras’ Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Commissions Program. Photo by Aaron Fullerton.

Toulmin, who died in 2010, served as the Sarasota Orchestra’s board chair from 2007-10. “It gave Virginia great pleasure to see women succeed—and also children,” says McKenna. “She was extremely proud that one of our youth orchestras played Carnegie Hall.”

The Toulmin commissions extend well beyond Florida over the next several seasons. World premieres have also been commissioned from Anna Clyne, at the Philadelphia Orchestra; Angel Lam, at the Kansas City Symphony; Gity Razaz, at the San Diego Symphony; Arlene Sierra, at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; and Wang Lu, at the New York Philharmonic. After the world premieres, each composer is also on track to have her commission performed by additional orchestras—five per composer in all. A total of 30 orchestras will have performed at least one of these works over the next two seasons. And it’s not only premieres and performances: the program will include mentoring, networking, career development, and community engagement opportunities for the composers.

“To have a commission that gives you a platform like this, with a confirmed premiere and multiple performances, is just huge,” the California-based Sarah Gibson said. Among her other compositions are many chamber works, such as a duo for soprano and double bass called The Boys Are There, based on a brilliantly droll novel by Dorothy Parker called Men I’m Not Married To. But full orchestral commissions are rare to come by for emerging composers. “It’s generally much easier to get your smaller pieces performed,” Gibson says, “and it’s frankly impractical to write a full orchestra piece if you’re only hoping that it might get played, no matter how much you want to scratch that itch.”

Amplifying BIPOC and Women’s Voices

New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program is designed to support BIPOC and women composers by working collaboratively with multiple orchestras and funding partners, says President and CEO Vanessa Reed: “We set up our Amplifying Voices program on the basis of knowing that a single grant from Sphinx or another foundation might not be large enough to cover even the commission, much less sustain the momentum that a premiere generates.

New Music President and CEO Vanessa Reed says that, so far, Amplifying Voices has helped to launch new works by 11 women and BIPOC composers, with more than 45 participating orchestras.

Composer residencies are part of New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program. In photo, composer Tania León meets with students at Arkansas’s Parkview High School during her Amplifying Voices residency with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Says Christina Littlejohn, Arkansas Symphony’s CEO: “Whatever group of people we put Tania in front of, she had them transfixed.” Photo courtesy of Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

“So we encourage the presenting orchestras to go ahead and find a way to fund their own commissions,” Reed said. “And then we seek to fund the composer’s time, travel, and accommodations so that the composer can have time to work with that orchestra and maximize the commission’s benefit. New Music USA began by working with the Sphinx Venture Fund on amplifying the impact for composers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. And then we sought other donors such as the Toulmin Foundation, which prioritizes women and nonbinary composers.”

It’s exhilarating to contemplate the impact of these Amplifying Voices projects for orchestras large and small. Vijay Iyer’s highly anticipated cello concerto Human Archipelago received its world premiere with soloist Inbal Segev and the London Philharmonic on October 1. Later this season, Segev takes the concerto to the Oregon Symphony (Jan. 14-16), Boise Philharmonic (Jan. 21), and Illinois Philharmonic (Feb. 23). Iyer says his piece is not only a concerto. He was inspired to try something different after reading Human Archipelago, a 2019 volume of photo essays by writer Teju Cole and photographer Fazal Sheikh about the extraordinary displacement of people caught up in the whirlwind of forced migrations and climate change. “I’ll be looking in each orchestra for a small group of musicians who think of themselves as having ‘good ears,’ and I’ll be asking them to sit out front with the soloist,” Iyer says. Collaborative by nature, Iyer says he wants selected musicians to respond freely in the moment to what they hear. “I want that sense of precariousness in real time that the photos inspire.”

At the Arkansas Symphony, CEO Christina Littlejohn said she took full advantage of Tania León’s Amplifying Voices residency in late March and early April: “Whatever group of people we put Tania in front of, she had them transfixed. She went into a high school band room and sat down at the piano, and before you know it, she was getting the kids to improvise. She worked once or twice with some composers who live in Arkansas. She had a great conversation with our artist advisory group about how we can be more inclusive, and how we can get beyond Mozart and Strauss. And, of course, they all loved her new piece, Pasajes. When she first came here, I asked her how much community work she felt might be appropriate, and she said, ‘Well, I’m paid to be in town the whole week. You might as well use me as much as you want!’ Her being here was such a gift.”

New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program support women and BIPOC composers through shared commissions by multiple orchestras. In photo, composer Shelley Washington with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Music Director Jaime Martín at an October performance of her new work, Both. The work had its world premiere at the Aspen Music Festival in August, with further performances this season at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Kansas City Symphony. Photo courtesy of LACO.

So far, Amplifying Voices has helped to launch new works by 11 composers, with more than 45 participating orchestras, Reed says. Shelley Washington’s new work, Both, had its world premiere at the Aspen Music Festival in August, with subsequent dates planned for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Oct. 15-16), and later this season at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Washington’s hometown Kansas City Symphony.

“I’m bi-polar, bi-sexual, and bi-racial,” says Washington, who was thrilled by the Aspen premiere of Both, which was inspired by her lived experience.  “I am a lot of different things that are on a certain level contradicting each other.” Washington performs frequently with friends, and she said the chance to have these far-flung orchestra commissions was great, if unsettling at first. “I had to make kind of an adjustment to the idea of working with all these people I don’t know. And it was, ‘Here’s a little chunk of my heart, I hope you like it!’ ”