How Does An Orchestra Commission New Music?

Seattle Symphony Librarians Robert Olivia and Jeanne Case with John Luther Adams' Become Desert score. (Photo by James Holt)

From inspiration to world premiere, a new orchestral commission is shaped by dozens of people along the way.

By Andrew Stiefel

Composers are often imagined as solitary figures, writing music alone before descending the stairs to present their creation to the world. In truth, the process involves dozens of people who shape and influence the music before the first notes are ever played. From orchestral librarians to artistic administrators to musicians and funders, a new orchestral work is the result of an intricate network of collaborators.

At the Seattle Symphony, Vice President of Artistic Planning and Creative Projects Elena Dubinets is the guiding hand behind the process. Since she began leading the Artistic Department in 2008, Dubinets has presided over more than 50 world premieres by some of today’s most recognized composers, including John Adams, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Giya Kancheli, Michael Gordon, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Prokofiev, Chen Yi, Agata Zubel and many others.

This year the Seattle Symphony will present the world premieres of four new commissions from Composer in Residence Alexandra Gardner, John Luther Adams, David Lang and Andrew Norman. But the process of commissioning these works began years ago.

Ludovic Morlot, John Luther Adams and Elena Dubinets backstage after the Seattle Symphony's performance of Adams' Become Ocean at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Brandon Patoc)

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and Dubinets work closely together to identify composers who fit the Symphony's mission and vision. Once they agree to approach a composer about a commission, however, Dubinets becomes their primary contact, guiding the music from inspiration through editing and finally into rehearsals with the orchestra.

Before the composer sets notes to page, they meet with Dubinets to negotiate instrumentation. "We rarely dictate anything besides approximate length and instrumentation, because we want composers to create their own work," she explains.

Of course, composing is a messy process and hard to predict, so changes do happen. When the instrumentation has to be adjusted, Dubinets approves the changes and works with the orchestra’s personnel manager to confirm musicians for the performance. While they are working, composers submit periodic drafts to Dubinets for review. “It helps us follow the process and make sure everything is on track,” she explains. “And it helps catch potential challenges so we can plan ahead.”

It also helps inform conversations between Dubinets and the Seattle Symphony’s fundraising team, who work with supporters who may be interested in sponsoring a commission. This season three out of four commissions are underwritten by generous donors.p>

For people who support commissioning a new work, the results can be thrilling. Lynn and Brian Grant underwrote Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, which went on to receive both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. This season they underwrote the commission of symphony without a hero by David Lang. “Simply put, the composer needs to be paid for the months that it takes to create a musical work,” explains Brian Grant. “But for us, the best thing about listening to a premiere is watching the orchestra, composer and the audience meet for the first time.”

Dubinets added, “We commission the composers that resonate with our mission. Or if we see potential for their growth — and for our growth.”

As the music nears completion, its next stop is the Symphony's Library. There, the librarians help proof and edit the parts. “We advocate and educate,” explains Robert Olivia, Seattle Symphony Associate Librarian. “We work with publishers to advocate for the needs of our musicians. And when working with young composers, we educate them about how to properly prepare their score and parts.”

The librarians also check for errors or other potential issues before the first rehearsal. “We want to create the best performance product possible,” adds Jeanne Case, Seattle Symphony Librarian. “In preparing the music it helps to think about what it is like for the performer when they’re playing: is the music readable once on the stand, do the page turns work, for example.”

Alexandra Gardner is the Seattle Symphony’s 2017–2018 Composer in Residence.  (Photo by Thom Parks)

Rehearsal time is precious, especially for a new work, so everyone wants to catch problems early. “I quickly learned that the orchestra librarians were my new best friends when it came to making sure my performance materials were as they should be,” Composer in Residence Alexandra Gardner recalls about her first commission for the Seattle Symphony in 2012. “They know exactly how the score and parts need to be formatted, both to communicate musical ideas as clearly as possible and to get the most out of rehearsal time.”

Once the parts are approved by the library, they are distributed to musicians. The principal string players meet separately to work out bowings ahead of the first rehearsal. Then the librarians copy the bowings into the parts for distribution to the string sections.

Finally, the orchestra meets for the first time, usually a few days before the premiere. At most the musicians will have three rehearsals ahead of the performance, totaling an hour or two of rehearsal time. No matter how exact the preparations, rehearsals are a high stakes process for the composer, who must balance the changes they suggest with the limited preparation time.

“Hearing a new work come to life is at once magical and terrifying.”

“The best analogy I can think of to describe the feeling of hearing a new work come to life within this context is that of — I can only imagine — a father-to-be experiencing the birth of a child; incredibly excited, and also a bit helpless,” says Gardner. “It is at once magical and terrifying.”

And, at last, the world premiere arrives. The hall fills with people, the lights dim and the orchestra tunes. And then, following years of conversations, emails, rounds of edits and rehearsals, music fills the room. And altogether too soon, the piece dissipates into applause.

“After the performance, I felt elated, and later on (post-adrenaline) a bit numb, as if waking up from a dream that I couldn’t fully remember,” says Gardner. “Writing for orchestra is a truly amazing experience—there is endless learning and insight to be gleaned from the process. It's something that you can work on for a lifetime and still be discovering new sounds and ideas at every turn.”

Listen boldly with the Seattle Symphony and discover new music by Composer in Residence Alexandra Gardner, John Luther Adams, David Lang and Andrew Norman!


Through the caring support of our donor family the Seattle Symphony is able to commission new works that share the voices of today’s artists. Special thanks to the generous individuals who have underwritten commissions this season: Dale and Leslie Chihuly, the Lynn and Brian Grant Family, Yoshi and Naomi Minegishi, and Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting. Join the community of supporters who make all our music possible with your donation today!

Posted on January 30, 2018