Celebration of Contemporary Music (1976)

“I am convinced that this is the most important single project with which we have been identified since the [Fromm] Foundation was established in 1952,” Paul Fromm wrote in a letter to his friend Gunther Schuller on March 11, 1974.  The twentieth-century music patron was referring – not to his impressive record of yearly grants given to composers of new music, not to his longstanding affiliation with Tanglewood – but rather to the 1976 Celebration of Contemporary Music, a nine-day symposium complete with concerts, lectures, open rehearsals, panels of composers and scholars, and exhibits of scores and books – all of which was organized by Fromm in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard School of Music. A departure from the Fromm Foundation’s usual small-scale encouragements, the Celebration was designed to dazzle – an objective it achieved in part by trading in on the hype surrounding America’s Bicentennial year. It was also designed to last: not only was it specifically advertised as the inaugural gem of an ongoing partnership, its directors chose to spotlight both American and European composers in an effort to highlight the ways in which American music had finally entered a world stage. It was a unique take on the Bicentennial theme; it was the perfect realization of its creators’ ideals; it was a broad and sustainable premise that would ensure the longevity of the festival and its message. And it didn’t work: the Celebration of Contemporary Music never saw a second year.


(Picture Caption: Principals of the three collaborating organizations of the "Celebration of Contemporary Music" pose with guest conductor
James Levine at the opening concert on March 3rd.  At left, Paul Fromm of the Fromm Music Foundation.  Flanking Mr. Levine, the two
Artistic Directors of the festivals, Pierre Boulez and Peter Mennin, President of the Juilliard School.)

Which isn't to say it wasn't successful.  Critics wrote glowing reviews.  Open rehearsals were attended by anywhere from 200 to 500 people.  Waiting lines formed in the lobby for daytime seminars held in Paul Recital Hall, and the New York Philharmonic calculated that their three concerts attracted 2,600 audience members.  “…The impact of the Celebration of Contemporary Music on the music world, scholars, students of music, the general public and the press was considerable,” the Philharmonic’s project coordinator wrote in his final report.    

In many ways, that was the end.  The Festival was over.  The promise of "inaugural" was never fulfilled.  With the advent of 1977, Fromm et. al had lost the Bicentennial momentum and all the funding opportunities that entailed.  Mennin blamed financial troubles at the New York Philharmonic; Moseley cited a long-awaited remodeling of Avery Fisher Hall that had already eaten away at his regular season.  The Juilliard School came closest to providing a legacy for the Celebration: in 1982, they put up posters for what they called "The Third Festival of Contemporary Music."  On the one hand, this is a tenuous link to a festival that took place six years earlier.  On the other, the 1982 festival featured roughly two-thirds music by American composers and one-third music that originated elsewhere.  “We plan to hold the festival every year,” Mennin explained in an article for a Lincoln Center publication.  The New York Philharmonic and the Fromm Foundation are absent from this feature.

And so the legacy of the Celebration of Contemporary Music was not to be found in its name, but rather in its ideas – and even those were eventually buffed and polished and shined into something new to fit the changing world of contemporary music.  But in 1976, when this was an inaugural event and all of the reviews came back golden, Paul Fromm was the last to give in to the prosaic pressures of finances and building space and petty bureaucratic squabbles: “Dear Carlos,” he wrote to Moseley on March 26, 1976, “I do, of course, have future plans for the Celebration Festival and, as a matter of fact, not just one but several plans every day.”  -Caitlin Schmid