Los Angeles is now the world capital of new music

Los Angeles is now the world capital of new music


norman lebrecht

June 30, 2022

Mark Swed makes a bold assertion in the LA Times:


Since April Fools’ Day, the L.A. Phil has presented, by my casual count, works by 70 living composers, most of them premieres. Every program by the full orchestra or members of the L.A. Phil has contained at least one new piece. In L.A. County (and throwing in, for good measure, the Ojai Festival, which attracts a largely L.A. audience), the number of works played during those 12 weeks by living composers may well approach 200.

Try to find an ensemble, from the staunchest to the funkiest, that hasn’t gotten into the act. To pick a grand and traditional institution, Los Angeles Opera displays a 3-1 score sheet — two operas and one orchestral song cycle by living composers and an opera by Verdi (go back two weeks to March 19 and add a third new opera)…

New York, London, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam happen to be historically vibrant centers of new music. They are presently home to more major composers than L.A. and feature impressive quantities of new music. They are capable of producing elaborate festivals of new music and accommodate prominent new music ensembles on a greater scale than we do.

But new music hasn’t in those cities, as here, penetrated every pore of the classical music scene. When the Berlin Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam does a new piece, it’s almost like 1985 again in L.A…. (More here.)

Mark is probably right. Berlin apart, major world capitals have abandoned their commitment to world premieres. London has gone flat, New York distracted, Munich, Zurich, Vienna – forget it.
LA has the 21st century vibe and the Dude deserves much credit.


  • tet says:

    LA’s approach to new music is like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see which one will stick to see if it’s done.

    My only question is, of all the spaghetti they’ve thrown against the wall in the last 22 years, since the start of the new millennium, how many have stayed on the wall? In other words, how many new pieces have the LA Phil actually played even 1 more time?

    That’s a whole lot of spaghetti piling up on the floor.

    • V.Lind says:

      Well, unless you disapprove of composers in general, someone has to give them a shot. Their work will either succeed or not — there are few guarantees in art. There were a lot more composers in past centuries than the ones we celebrate today — some perhaps unfairly, some not, obscured by the best whose work did succeed. What LA is doing may well develop the ears of audiences to start discerning what can last and what will prove ephemeral.

      Your comment seems negative of this effort. Not, it seems to me, the right approach to the role of an orchestra.

      Theatres try new plays. Galleries exhibit new painters. Everything old was new once. Quality will out.

      • Nick says:

        Yep, Lind, you must grow up a little!!

      • Adista says:

        LA isn’t “giving them a shot” because they care about promoting new music, they’re doing it because it’s the only way they’re able to satisfy the DEI requirements of their corporate paymasters. Whether a work is any good or has staying power is completely irrelevant to the LA Phil. It’s not about music for them, it’s about money.

      • A Pianist says:

        Are you saying that, in retrospect, Spontini’s name doesn’t belong on the Garnier facade next to Rossini, Beethoven and Mozart? Perish the thought.

    • Nick says:

      You are right, tet. Whatever crap happens it MUST happen in L.A.!!! The orchestra has long unlearned how to play real music and “living composers” is the only thing that they can manage at this point. (also of course, all colors and genders, and such….the more the merrier)!! And 99.9% of this, so called, music is, as you rightly pointed out, “spaghetti piling up on the floor”!! Bravo! Great comment.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      The “hit” rate of new music is always not great. But I can think of a number of bigger hits LA gave the world premiere of that have been performed elsewhere: John Adams’ Gospel According to the Other Mary and probably a few other things by Adams, Gerald Barry’s Alice went on to get a full staging in the UK and Importance of Being Earnest was staged in NY, I feel like Ades’ Dante will likely have life after LA and the Barbican given its reviews, the Labeques have taken Philip Glass’ concerto for them from LA elsewhere, there are also probably some things by Daniel Bjarnason, Louis Andriessen, Gabriela Ortiz (who LA seems to like) that have been performed elsewhere after their premiere, but I’m less of an expert there. Unsure if you want to count things by Esa-Pekka Salonen that he wrote while there, but he gets a fair amount of play outside LA and now SF. I’ll also say the recordings of Steve Reich’s Pulse and Andrew Norman’s Sustain both had nice success.

      Will a lot of these short 5-10 minute overtures they do have a second life? Some might, though we all know many will not. But there is indeed some spaghetti still stuck to that wall.

      • Wannaplayguitar says:

        Short overtures? I’m ok with those, it’s the hellishly loud atonal blast compositions (naming no names) that pin us into our seats for 25-30 mins that I object to. If I want that I’ll go to a megadeath rock concert (sans earplugs)

    • Paradiso in Terra says:

      I think the approach is more like Barilla spaghetti with lots of Kraft Cheese and then see which one sticks. Not much style diversity there but rather the more “accessible “ is favored, sadly.

    • Gary Hollander says:

      No 21st century work has received more performances than Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs and its world premiere was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May, 2005. Great mezzo-sopranos continue to perform the work and great conductors continue to champion Lieberson’s masterpiece in its countless performances. The commission was initiated in Los Angeles and joined to by the Boston Symphony for its November 2005 premiere performances

    • Save the MET says:

      Could not agree more, it’s quantity versus quality.

  • kh says:

    While LA indeed has a vibrant new music scene and one of the best orchestras in the world (easily top 3; what Dudamel did with them is absolutely remarkable as their recent broadcast series attests to), nobody should take American music critics seriously, least of all Mark Swed.

  • Jean Gress says:

    Haydn had an in house orchestra to experiment with. Even using synthesizers, there is nothing like a live performance to help composers hone their craft. Not every piece is going to be a winner like Blue Cathedral, but performances and interacting with musicians can help composers improve and hear what does or does not work. As a long time Ojai goer and musician, I can say not every piece deserves a second performance but music has to be a living art.

    • MWnyc says:

      Thank you for the shout-out to Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral”.

      I do wonder why her Concerto for Orchestra hasn’t been picked up more widely. (Could be, I guess, that it’s too tricky to perform without more rehearsal than many orchestras have time for.)

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    When Chicago does a piece of new music, it’s almost like 1885 again in L.A.

    But there are plenty of revolutionary ideas in Chicago, such as librettos keeping the n-words in them.

    Muti, Rocca and Alexander deserve much credit

  • mp says:

    Munich ‘forget it’ strikes me as very reductive and insulting to Bavarian musicians. It is not always necessary to denigrate the work of other orchestras in order to make news. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra once owned by Mariss Jansons and of which Sir Simon will become the principal conductor in 2023, has since 1945 been dedicating a wonderful, very interesting season of symphonic and chamber music concerts exclusively to contemporary music under the name Musica Viva. Just because Gustavo now devotes a little more attention to the world of contemporary music in LA, one should not denigrate those who do so regularly, profoundly and convincingly with a loyal audience of subscribers for over 70 years. At the BRSO, contemporary music has been an integral part of the season since the creation of the orchestra. Less gossip and more respect for everyone’s work would increase the site’s credibility.

  • Plush says:

    Please mark which pieces in Los Angeles were performed more than once.

    • A Pianist says:

      As the old joke goes, they all got two performances — their first and their last.

    • Angelo says:

      Um, these are world premieres? It’s too soon to have seen them more than once. John Adams’s and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s pieces frequently get repeat performances, at least in LA.

  • SVM says:

    London has plenty of new music going on, but most of it is *not* in big, prestigious venues with big-name performers and massive publicity. As a result, a lot of stuff goes unnoticed, even by people who would have been interested had they known about it (on several occasions, I have been to a concert with lots of new music, and fallen into conversation with a fellow concert-goer who tells me about another recent new-music concert he/she had attended about which I had had no idea).

  • CGDA says:

    Most of the music they play is utter rubbish!

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Having grown up in L.A. post -Schoenberg and during Henri Lazarof, my view of music is increasingly consumer-oriented. What portion of my two-hundred-dollar concert ticket do I wish to donate to the music of Elliott Carter, John Adams (the composer, not the politician) and their younger colleagues?

  • Zandonai says:

    Swed needs to go he’s such a Dudamel sycophant. I take all his LA Phil reviews with a grain of salt.

  • Rwan says:

    Maybe i would have been fair go speak about Paris…but it doesn’t fit with you perpetual denigration of french music life!

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I wish NL and everyone else would stop referring to Gustavo Dudamel as “The Dude”. Vaguely amusing at first – if not also a tad obvious – it now comes across as cheapening and denigrating. That’s one point. My other point is that ‘new music’ has been a hallmark of the L.A. music scene for decades. While Zubin Mehta might not have conducted a big number of world premieres (I honestly don’t know), much of the repertoire he programmed would still be considered ‘modern music’. When I was there to go to music school in the middle 1970’s, William Kraft and Ingolf Dahl were very much the rage (so to speak). Zubin Mehta had recently recorded an album of Edgar Varese’s music.

  • Sean says:

    This strikes me as fairly typical (and arrogant) navel-gazing opinion/journalism. Apparently only big, so called “international”, cities count in these self-congratulatory pieces, whereas infact new music is rubbing shoulders with the classics quite happily in most communities where classical musicians flourish. Mr Swed (and others) need to dismount their pedestals.

  • Sisko24 says:

    I agree with the comments and complaints about the lack of repetition of new music from many other readers. Sometimes I hear new works performed which I find interesting and would like to hear repeated, not just within the same season but in a succeeding season. But the orchestra (or the house if they commissioned it) won’t or don’t repeat it. How then, is any listener to conclude a work is valued or not? Repetition in hearing is the best way to examine and re-examine a musical work.

  • Angel says:

    Dudamel has almost nothing to do with this situation – indeed I was worried that his Music Directorship would hamper the LAPhil’s new music bonafides. So glad that I was wrong and that Deborah Borda and Chad Smith (inventor of Noon-to-Midnight) kept up the good work, with Salonen available to conduct all the time. Dudamel has not once conducted the new music series this season, which Esa-Pekka regularly returns for, and funded himself during the long dark days of the late 90’s. Dudamel’s name actually never appears once in Swed’s commentary, though the recently deceased William Kraft does, instigator of the Green Umbrella series and LA Phil assistant conductor and composer and LA Phil principal percussionist.

    Monday Evening Concerts (80 years old now!) is also crucial to LA’s new music scene, having hosted Bartok, Ives, Schoenberg and Stravinsky when they were “new music”. I don’t think there are any debates about whether the work those four has been given a second airing – all music was “new” once…

  • Just saying says:

    LA Phil also has the best concert hall in the United States, which helps a lot. Walt Disney Hall is an amazing experience, makes NY concert halls seem cramped and outdated in comparison.

  • Paul N says:

    Stop the snark! I live in LA and Disney Hall, Dudumel, and the orchestra produce a consistently high level of music-making of which we can be legitimately proud…I agree that Swed is probably more of a cheerleader than a critic…but we are blessed with one of America’s great orchestras, which is not to take away anything from Cleveland, NY, or Chicago…all very, very fine!

  • Daniel says:

    Respectfully, have you actually listened to this second rate ensemble? La La Land, smoke and mirrors. It has no identifiable sound, it’s playing is far below the level of less hyped ensembles such as Minnesota or St. Louis, much less SF. I wish them well and Mr. Swed is an enlightened critic, but seriously?