Crunching the Musical Numbers

Gemma New
One of the increasing number of women guest conducting US orchestras

As we have been emerging from Covid lockdown, one of the things I have been most interested in is what kind of classical music options I will have next season (Fall ’21 to Spring ’22). Even prior to Covid, I eagerly awaited spring when orchestras published their upcoming seasons. I’d start a spreadsheet with possible concerts to go to, both here in DC and around the country.

Pent Up Demand

Not having been to a live performance since March 2020 had me particularly eager to see what we might hope for in the 2021-22 season. Not surprisingly, most orchestras were much later in publishing their seasons this spring with a few pushing it well into July (hence the lateness of this post).


When the schedules first started coming out I stuck to my usual list of orchestras I would travel for. But as I started to make my spreadsheet, I became more and more curious about programming decisions. On the one hand, the repertoire seemed far more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender. On the other hand, the old warhorses seemed to be out in force. And while curiosity may not always kill the cat, it can lead one into a data entry loop that hovers on the edge of ridiculous. And since I wanted to see if my perceptions were borne out by the data I decided to go for it.

Building the list

I thought the analysis would be more interesting and more meaningful if I extended it to include enough orchestras so that I could reasonably say things like “Among major US orchestras…”

Although I wasn’t scientific about deciding which orchestras made the list, I’m fairly confident that my choices would stand up to just about any metric you cared to apply to make such a list. For better or worse, this is the list I came up with (in alphabetical order):

  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Robert Spano, American)
  • Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Marin Alsop, American)
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra (Andris Nelsons, Latvian)
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Riccardo Muti, Italian)
  • Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Louis Langrée, French)
  • Cleveland Orchestra (Franz Wesler-Möst, Austrian)
  • Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Fabio Luisi, Italian)
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Jader Bignamini, Italian)
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic (Gustavo Dudamel, Venezuelan)
  • Minnesota Orchestra (Osmo Vänskä, Finnish)
  • Nashville Symphony (Giancarlo Guerrero, Costa Rican)
  • National Symphony Orchestra (Gianandrea Noseda, Italian)
  • New York Philharmonic (Jaap van Zweden, Dutch)
  • Philadelphia Orchestra (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Canadian)
  • Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Manfred Honeck, Austrian)
  • St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Stéphane Denève, French)
  • St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Various Artistic Partners)
  • San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish)
  • Seattle Symphony (Thomas Dausgaard, Danish)

I’m a little biased to include the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on this list since it isn’t a symphony orchestra like all the others, but their seasons, their audiences, and their hall, all stand up to the big boys. Plus I love going back to Minnesota to hear them and the Minnesota Orchestra in the same weekend, so of course I’m going to include the SPCO in my spreadsheet.

I should also note that Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis only published half seasons.

What’s in a Music Director?

You can see from the list above that music directors (or equivalent) are very white and very male. It’s particularly disheartening to see American orchestras not trust homegrown talent with the baton. Even more disheartening is that after this next season none of these orchestras will be headed by a woman. (As I’ve tweeted previously, I hope the Minnesota Orchestra can see their way to hiring a woman to replace Vänskä.)

What I mean when I say diversity

Although increasing representation of women and people of color is something I would like to see as a matter of equity and inclusion, my interests in diversity have much more to do with not wanting to be bored. When I see nothing but European chestnuts on concert programs I sometimes have a hard time getting excited enough to buy tickets, let alone put clothes on and make it to the concert hall. Don’t get me wrong, I love the European chestnuts, but there is so, so much room to include other pieces that don’t fall into that category. I know, the chestnuts sell tickets for most everybody else, but good God I know orchestras are capable of slipping more into that diet. Even within the reliance on European composers there is room for more diversity. Just think of all those European composers that can’t get any air because we seem to need 47 Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5s. I don’t really cover that kind of diversity in this post–I will have much more to say on that front when I take a deeper dive into specific repertoire in the coming weeks.

General Comments on My Data

General Disclaimer: I strove for accuracy, but I also made lots of judgement calls about just about every category of data. The result is that the overall picture I paint is correct, but no one should use these numbers to do anything official.

Source: I looked at whatever information was available on each orchestra’s website. Some made it really easy with all information in one scrollable page or document. Others made it hard, making me click on multiple buttons to see what was on each concert. Others made it even harder by making me go through multiple subscription packages to make sure all concerts were accounted for.

By the numbers: I looked at 19 different orchestras who will be playing a total of 1,105 works next season. Bear in mind, these are not 1,105 unique works and there are many duplicates. In fact, the duplication is one of the things I was interested in exploring.

What kind of concerts I included: For the most part I only included concerts that were a part of subscription seasons, although one or two others may have slipped through. I did not include any pops or holiday concerts, recitals, chamber concerts by members of the orchestra. I also skipped any concert with artists where the programs were either TBA or some sort of improv/collaboration.

Some of you will hate me for not including conductors and artists: I wish my data included conductor and artist information for each program, but I had to draw the line somewhere when doing the data entry and that seemed like a bridge too far. There certainly seem to be more female guest conductors than ever before but that won’t show in my data. The only instance where a guest conductor seemed to have a noticeable impact on the data was Herbert Blomstedt who is going on a bit of a mini-tour with Nielsen 4 and Beethoven 5 in at least three cities. After I started seeing duplicates of certain concertos (I just can’t use concerti in English) I took a peek to see if artists were driving the duplication, but from what I could see, artists are not one-trick ponies.

Analysis is based on number of works, not minutes on stage: I’ve based all my analysis on number of works, not amount of stage time. This means that all data about new music, music by women composers, and music by minority composers has to be taken with a grain of salt. In terms of minutes on stage, the old white boys are getting even more exposure than the numbers below will suggest. I didn’t keep track of length of pieces, but I did keep track of concert program order, which is pretty good approximation for piece length for concerts in the U.S.


Not surprisingly, 72% of works programmed by 19 major U.S. orchestras (see I told you I wanted to say that) are by composers identified as European. Out of the remaining 28%, about 23% are works by U.S. American composers, which leaves only 5% for the rest of the world. Perhaps more interesting than this rather crude breakdown, is the list that follows.

In total 33 countries were represented. Some judgement calls had to be made when it came to a composer’s nationality. In general I called them whatever Wikipedia called them with a few adjustments to suit myself (e.g., Percy Grainger = British, Handel = German).

For anyone who pays attention to orchestral music, this list won’t be remotely surprising. On the spectrum between old world fetishists and new world evangelists, I am somewhere in the middle. I do think, however, that the second two columns of this table are a bit tragic. Do we really believe that none of those countries deserve at least 1% of the programming pie– not to mention countries that aren’t represented?

American Heroes (and Zeros)

It is nice to see that a decent amount of U.S. American music is being programmed. Given the dearth of American music directors, I’m actually kind of chuffed that we see as much American programming as we do. Age of music director seems to be more of an indicator than nationality when it comes to programming American music. The top five orchestras have an average music director age of 50 years old, while the bottom five have an average age of 62.6. But that doesn’t explain why Andris Nelsons (42) in Boston was worse than Riccardo Muti (79) in Chicago.

Philadelphia’s fantastically strong showing in this category might be skewed by the fact that they only published a half season. But look at Seattle, with a full season published nipping at Philly’s heels. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed that Minnesota’s number was so low. I wonder if it was always this low during Vänskä’s tenure. As much as I like him, I hope his replacement plays and records, not only more American music, but more eclectic repertoire in general. So much great under-recorded music to explore. Given their discography on Naxos, I’m not surprised that Nashville is as close to the top as it is. I wonder if St. Louis’s strong showing is still part of Leonard Slatkin’s legacy there? I’m a little surprised that Baltimore is as far down the list as it is–Marin Alsop always seems like a champion of American music to me. And what in the hell is up with Pittsburgh? Yikes.

Breakthrough for Diversity?

This is the point where my OCD kicks in and I want to get historical data for all the same orchestras so I can see just how much (or little) progress has been made in programming works by diverse composers. But I do have a day job and a husband and other interests so I am going to try and avoid falling down that rabbit hole.

I find it very interesting to see the most programmed composers of color are a real mix of the new and the historic.

You’ll see that Philadelphia maintains the top spot for both works by Americans and works by composers of color. Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to be steering Philadelphia in interesting ways. You’ll also note that other fine Pennsylvania orchestra, is at the bottom of the list in both these categories. What is Manfred Honeck up to in Pittsburgh? It certainly is nice to see Minnesota redeem itself a bit with composers of color since they fared so poorly in the American music category.

Women are inching forward

And once again Philadelphia takes the top spot, Pittsburgh manages to move itself out of bottom place, and New York finally starts to look less backward than it does in the first two categories. Not only is Minnesota starting to look bad again, but a whole bunch of orchestras plunge down below 10%. Detroit’s leadership in American music and music by composers of colors fades quite a bit when it comes to women. The penises in charge need to step up their game or step aside.

So who has the most diverse Program for next Season?

You will notice in the table below I have two additional categories by which I have gauged diversity.

Works by non-European and non-USA composers: If you pop back up towards the top of his post you will see how U.S.- and Euro-centric next season is. Only Los Angeles and San Francisco manage to get above the 10% mark. Minnesota finally manages a respectable place in the diversity stakes. And Pittsburgh, that denizen of the bottom of my lists, manages to fly up to fifth place. And, hello, what’s that, look at diversity stalwarts Philadelphia and Detroit tie for last place for zero, nil, nada, in this category.

Composers born 1960 or later: I wasn’t about to look up the publish dates for every piece of music being played next year, but I did want to have some sort of metric that would capture “new” music, so I decided to go with composer’s year of birth. Being born in 1969, I didn’t want to include any composers who were too much older than me. If you think about the fact the youngest composer programmed next season was born in 2000 (Tyson Davis with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in September), 1960 seems a bit like ancient history. But they wouldn’t have published until the mid-1970s at the earliest so that seems less ancient. Incidentally, the SPCO also has the oldest composer programmed (William Lawes born in 1602). That’s over 400 years of rep.

So who wins?

When you average out these five categories, it’s not surprising that Philadelphia took the top spot. Even with a whopping zero in the non-Euro/US category, their strong showing in the first three categories made them hard to beat. As I mentioned earlier, they only published a half season so who knows if they will keep up the good work in the Spring. They are a reasonable distance from DC. I will have to see what I can get to in the Fall.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin doing something right in Philly.
(Photo: Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer)

The lovely St. Paul Chamber Orchestra comes in at number two. Couldn’t happen to a more interesting band. When I lived in (and near) the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for about 10 concert-going years, I didn’t bother much with the SPCO. I equated them with music of a vintage earlier than I typically enjoy. These were the Christopher Hogwood, Hugh Wolfe days, so maybe they were less adventurous in the old days. All I know is that I rediscovered them about four years ago when I booked a double header on a weekend trip back to Minnesota, with the Minnesota Orchestra on one night and the SPCO on another. Besides being blown away by their new purpose-built concert hall, I was also blown away by the SPCO’s repertoire. In one concert we got Barber’s Knoxville, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, and Terry Riley’s In C. Excuse my French, but it was fucking fantastic. I soon made additional trips for things like Lembit Beecher’s Conference of the Birds, Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Gounod, and others. It must be the fact that the group is more democratic than any symphonic orchestra and has what they call artistic partner’s instead of a single music director. I really urge you to try a classical double header in the Twin Cities some time. Even though Minnesota didn’t do so hot on the diversity front for next season, they are such a good orchestra and hearing them in the same weekend as the highly engaging SPCO is well worth the trip. Just make sure they are playing at their Ordway Concert Hall. They have lots of other interesting venues in which they regularly play, but the hall is so perfect for them.

The SPCO in their purpose-built hall. (Photo: Nate Ryan/MPR)

The rest of the top five are not so surprising either. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has the young and energetic Gustavo Dudamel keeping it young and energetic. St. Louis has something (the Slatkin legacy I suggested earlier?) going on that is good, and Seattle always seems to be happy to not be like every other orchestra.

But what the hell is up with the rest of the “Big 5”? Although Philly tops the list, the other four didn’t even make it into the top ten. Out of these, New York came in at 11, Chicago at 15, Cleveland at 16, and Boston at an abysmal 18. Cleveland has the smallest concert going population base, I can kind of forgive them (although St. Louis and Nashville are probably in similar situations and that doesn’t stop them). All of them have so much cachet it is hard to believe they are so incapable of leading their audiences down more interesting paths. Is it their need to have old white Europeans at their helms that causes them such programming perplexities? Are they so far up their own prestigious butts that they don’t see the world moving on? I know that doesn’t entirely explain it, but I think it really is time to let some light in at the top.

Next Time

Although this was super fun and hopefully interesting for you, I’ve very excited for my next (and probably final) installment where I am going to dive deep into specific repertoire.

Things like: Whose 5th is getting played the most next year?

And: Does France only have two composers?

And: Can I see all 10 Mahler symphonies next year in the US?

9 thoughts on “Crunching the Musical Numbers

  1. jennycolvin July 24, 2021 / 10:40 pm

    I have a friend who is a season subscriber to the LA Phil and because of this has seen many John Adams premieres, since he is/was the composer in residence. Personally I prefer to see what’s next from John Luther Adams but I’m more likely to hang out at a percussion festival than a symphony hall, based on what is available to me..I have seen one concert in Philly and another in Chicago (where the Music Library Association commissioned a work by Augusta Read Thomas for our 75th!)

    I enjoyed your data presentation and I hope you get to experience some great live music this year!


    • Thomas July 25, 2021 / 11:09 am

      You will enjoy the next installment when I get into specific rep. I do remember though, the John Luther Adams doesn’t have anything on the program for any of these 19 orchestras.


  2. Geoff W July 26, 2021 / 3:54 pm

    This was fascinating! I’m not at all surprised (or shocked) by Boston’s abysmal showing. They’re pandering (still) to the audience that’s paying for the season tickets. They’ve tried everything in the decade+ I’ve been up here to bring in younger (and presumably more diverse) audience members but haven’t really been that successful. And for the most part it feels like when Boston tries to do the more “experimental” stuff (i.e. what it sounds like Philadelphia is rocking at) they push to one off performances during their summer session out in Tanglewood; which is a stunning campus, but one of the least diverse audiences I’ve ever been in at a performance (outside of age, huge age range there).


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