How is the League of American Orchestras Using Mellon Grant Money to Appeal to The Kids?

The League of American Orchestras has a stumbled upon an idea that it thinks will boost enthusiasm among the younger demographic — and it isn't exactly rocket science.

The league has been pushing a deceptively simple strategy of pairing orchestras with younger composers. The logic is that younger audience members will be drawn to work by younger composers over some European guy who's been dead for 200 years (not that there's anything wrong with European guys who've been dead for 200 years).

And guess what? Its strategy is working. The league found that not only are younger audiences attending concerts, but that the exposure, in turn, raises awareness of older contemporary and earlier works. Kind of like a gateway drug, only for music.

This strategy comes to life in the orchestra's New Partnerships program, which is run in tandem with New Music USA, a music advocacy organization. New Partnerships is like a classical version of eHarmony or Just Lunch — which, in case you haven't read any airline magazines recently, sets up pairs of busy working professionals on brief and innocuous lunch date — in that it places young composers with orchestras.

There's two particularly interesting things about its model. One, the composers and orchestras are working together for the first time. They're going on a blind date. This certainly takes both parties out of their respective comfort zones. Second, the aim of this program isn't to create new work, which on the surface seems a little strange. After all, new work is the engine of the music business and most grants we come across call for the creation of new material.

The New Partnership takes a different approach. Rather than commission new material, it instead provides $7,500 grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to cover week-long residencies. It's during these residencies that the orchestras learn and subsequently perform a work from the composer's catalog.

The program just announced this year's set of 12 pairings. For example, the composer Takuma Otoh will be holing up with the Tuscon Symphony Orchestra. Sumi Tonooka will work with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. And so on.

Of course, Mellon acknowledges that there are other ways to turn on the kids to classical music. For example, check out our take on efforts to boost classical music awareness amongst the University of Texas-Austin student population.

As for its funding of the New Partnerships program, consider it a kind of week-long classical boot camp consisting of composers and orchestras who have never met, culminating in a performance which will attract a younger demographic.

When you think about it, the concept almost sounds like a kind of reality show.