The Eugene Symphony has long enjoyed a reputation as Oregon’s most forward-looking orchestra. Particularly after visionary music director Marin Alsop ascended the podium in 1989, the ESO’s programming of contemporary, and especially American, music put it — and Alsop — on the national map. While the usual 19th century classics have always dominated the repertoire, Alsop’s successors Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Giancarlo Guerrero continued to feature more 20th– and 21st century music than typical American orchestras.
The progressive pace seemed to flag in the first few years of Danail Rachev’s regime, but recently the new sounds have begun to flow again. Half a century after its inception with a rehearsal in Caroline Boekelheide’s living room, it seems to be entering a new era — or re-entering an earlier one, the one that embraced contemporary as well as classic sounds. Beginning this Thursday with a new work commissioned from young West Coast composer Mason Bates who, more than any other American writing for orchestra, embraces a 21st century aesthetic that speaks to listeners beyond the cozy classical club, Rachev is featuring music by five living composers in the ESO’s golden anniversary season, including the world premieres of three original works written for the orchestra. Not that there’s a whole lot of competition in an orchestral landscape largely bereft of originality, but he’s restored ESO to its place as the most visionary of Oregon orchestras.
“Too often, we have this sense that classical music is this dusty canon, this revered library,” says ESO executive director Scott Freck, who took over in June 2012. “People forget that all music was new once. New music can be as valuable as older music because there’s a contemporary human relevance to it. And there’s power in putting new works up against old works and seeing what we learn about ourselves and the music. Even our existing audience will listen to the classics with fresh ears.”
The renewed emphasis on new music is part of the ESO’s push for innovation, Freck says, in an era when orchestras face enormous challenges and dwindling interest from younger listeners. “All Beethoven all the time won’t work, even people who love Beethoven would agree,” he says. “Every arts organization is struggling to attract a younger audience. In these economically tough times, we have to diversify and get experimental. We’re a little more nimble” than larger orchestras, Freck explains, and so the orchestra’s leadership (its board boasts three members under 40 years old) is considering everything from working with young composers (as it does now with young instrumentalists) to expanding its music education programs to “making the concert experience more relevant” to today’s audiences.
“We want more kinds of music for more kinds of people in more kinds of places,” he explains, cautioning that new approaches must still “make some economic sense. We can’t do a bunch of crazy stuff and lose a bunch of money. But we have to be open to new things. I love the Hult, but I don’t want the orchestra to only play there. We want to do more at the Cuthbert [Amphitheater], maybe take component units of the orchestra to play at a bar. I’ve been to powerful performances in restaurants and pubs — there can be a freshness to it.”
After opening this week with a French and American program of music by Bates, George Gershwin, Ravel and Saint Saens, and continuing with new music sprinkled throughout its season concerts, the ESO’s season closes with a newly commissioned work by University of Oregon music professor Robert Kyr, with fellow UO prof Alexandre Dossin as soloist. “The arc of the season is an exploration of America and where its culture comes from,” Freck explains. “All these different cultures mix together and we add our special sauce.”
The orchestra will also celebrate its past in an exhibition at the Hult’s Jacobs Gallery (which also opens Thursday night), in articles in its program book, in concerts led by former music directors Alsop, Harth-Bedoya and Guerrero, and more. But rather than basking in past glories, this landmark season is, commendably, mostly about the future. “I believe the modern symphony orchestra is the greatest instrument ever invented,” Freck says. “Anything the human imagination can dream up, you can hear those sounds in the orchestra. So we have to keep pushing for people to keep writing for it.” By putting its money where its values are and commissioning new music for orchestra, the Eugene Symphony is establishing a foundation for the next half century.
A version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.