The biggest problem in commissioning a new symphonic work has always been that, once performed, it tends to be forgotten. The cost of rehearsing a new work is prohibitive, and most orchestras are unwilling to undertake such a project without special funding for that purpose. This is why, perhaps illogically, it is easier for an organization like the New York Philharmonic to mount an entire contemporary music festival, such as its just-ended ``Horizons '86,'' than it is to schedule too large a quantity of new works in the course of its season.
Over the years, efforts to do something about this have been little more than sporadic. Enter ``AT&T American Encore'' -- a program that will give $200,000 each to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic over the next two years to rehearse and present American works (six per season) that have been neglected since their premi`eres and yet are eminently deserving of a rehearing.
Next season, AT&T hopes to announce the participation of two more orchestras. Meanwhile, the current orchestras have already announced the first six or seven works to be performed. In Los Angeles, works by John Harbison, Joan Tower, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich represent the immediate past; others by Harold Shapero, Roger Sessions, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Walter Piston go further into the past.
The Philadelphia has opted for works by Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Jacob Druckman, Irving Fine, Karel Husa, and Bernard Rands. It is not as richly textured and imaginative a list as the L.A. Philharmonic's. But this has much to do with John Harbison, L.A.'s composer-in-residence, a thoughtful man whose music lets one believe he knows and loves the American symphonic tradition. The list he has worked out with Andr'e Previn, the Philharmonic's musical director, reflects this love.
The practice of repeated hearings of new works used to be common. There was a time when audiences craved only the new. Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms all made a living off their music -- the more performances, the better the income. Once the so-called Viennese School, headed by Arnold Schoenberg, came to be, new music became less willingly sought after. Nowadays, subscription audiences revile the new and walk out on it, almost categorically.
By creating a special season of contemporary music, as in the case of ``Horizons,'' the repertoire plays to the already converted, who generally receive it with enthusiasm. Even the occasional booing is done from a viewpoint of caring for the idiom rather than from stubborn resistance.
The seven-program ``Horizons '86'' offered some premi`eres and some recent works, as well as some latter-day classics. I most enjoyed Ligeti's ``Aventures''/``Nouvelles Aventures,'' Arvo P"art's ``Tabula Rasa,'' Lutoslawski's ``Trois po`emes d'Henri Michaux,'' and Druckman's ``Lamia for Soprano and Orchestra'' -- all works that should be heard again and again.
The P"art has been recorded on ECM's ``New Series'' (25011-1 F). Lutoslawski's ``Trois po`emes'' is a gritty, gnarled work that builds in intensity as it explores the Michaux text by means of a lean chamber orchestra and a chorus functioning on a now-structured, now-aleatory basis. Druckman's ``Lamia'' is a study in chants and incantations (from early primitive texts, through Wagner's Isolde). It juxtaposes a full orchestra against a soprano (or actually, mezzo soprano Jan de Gaetani). It demands great vocal and histrionic prowess (which Miss de Gaetani, the work's dedicatee, is no longer really up to). And as it charts its musical course, ``Lamia'' becomes increasingly engrossing.
Some works in ``Horizons '86'' promised more than they delivered. Two Luciano Berio pieces, ``A -- Ronne'' and ``Laborintus II,'' sounded dated. The former is a study in how voices making nonverbal sounds can become the source of a musical oeuvre and owes too great a debt to the above-mentioned Ligeti work. Happily, it received a dazzling performance from the group ``Electric Phoenix.''
There were a few problematic works. Morton Feldman's ``Coptic Lights'' droned drearily away for 27 minutes (on a program, conducted by Gunther Schuller, that outstayed its welcome, despite the presence of the P"art and the Lutoslawski). Two works by Karlheinz Stockhausen -- ``Der Kleine Harlekin'' and ``Trans'' -- revealed just how pretentious this composer's music can really be.
The Philharmonic was involved in five of the programs. They played especially well on the first and last programs -- under the batons of Zolt'an Pesk'o and Leonard Slatkin respectively. How sad, therefore, to have to mention the unprofessional behavior of the violinist who intentionally played out of synchronization in the Stockhausen and was seen being very disruptive in the Feldman. It is the sort of behavior that reflects badly on the entire ensemble, and it put a blemish on what was otherwise a stimulating series of concerts.