Mission & History
Innovating Right Before Your Ears
Founded in 1977, American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is the only orchestra in the world dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation and promulgation of music by American composers. In pursuit of its singular mission, ACO maintains an unparalleled range of activities including concerts, commissions, recordings, radio broadcasts, educational programs and new music reading sessions.
ACO identifies today's brightest emerging composers, champions prominent established artists and increases international awareness of the variety of American orchestral music. ACO incubates new ideas, develops talent, and serves as a catalyst and advocate for American composers and their music. To date, ACO has performed music by over 600 composers, including more than 200 world premieres and commissioned works. Many ACO-commissioned composers have gone on to win important prizes such as the Pulitzer, Guggenheim Fellowship and Prix de Rome.
ACO makes the creation of new opportunities for American composers and new American orchestral music its central purpose. ACO programs increase opportunities for American composers and generate broader awareness of their work. ACO's new approach generates further interest and programming by other music organizations and increase the audience for contemporary American orchestral music by influencing music decision makers. Conductor George Manahan joined ACO as Music Director beginning with the 2011 season. Only the third music director in ACO’s history, his tenure
has ushered in a new era of innovative music in the most diverse styles, with an attention to detail and a performance level without equal.
Orchestra Underground is ACO’s series that stretches
the definition of, and possibilities for the orchestra. Originally designed for the
opening of state-of-the-art Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the series challenges conventional notions about symphonic music, embracing multidisciplinary and collaborative work, novel instrumental and spatial orientations of musicians, new technologies and multimedia.
Through the Orchestra Underground concerts ACO now commissions more new and
experimental work each season than at any time in its history.
Launching in the 2011-12 season is SONiC: Sounds of a New Century,
a festival featuring works composed in the first decade of this century by composers aged 40.
The festival takes place over nine days in October 2011, and features over 100
composers, 16 ensembles, 11 venues, and 24 world premieres. Last season ACO
developed the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute an intensive program of
workshops and readings that opens up the world of symphony orchestra composition
to jazz composers looking to extend the reach of their work.
Recent initiatives include EarShot, a National Orchestral Composition Discovery Network to assist orchestras around the country develop their own readings, composer development workshops, competitions and performances of new American music; Playing it UNsafe, an
extended laboratory for the development and performance of experimental new works; and a
new recording initiative that disseminates live ACO performances for streaming
and download on the Internet to the broader music field and public.
Other major projects have included the Improvise! festival, which supported and encouraged the creation and performance of works integrating improvisation with the orchestra; 20th-Century Snapshots, a multi-year celebration of the Millennium based on evocative and provocative American themes and ideas; Sonidos de las Américas, six festivals devoted to the music of different Latin American countries; Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices, an exploration of the ongoing evolution of American music through the music of immigrant composers; and Orchestra Tech, a long-term
project to encourage the creation, performance and development of music uniting orchestral forces and new technology.
Among the honors received by ACO are a special award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a proclamation from the New York City Council.
ACO was also the recipient of the inaugural MetLife Award for excellence in
community engagemenet. BMI has honored ACO for its outstanding contribution to American music, and the
League of American Orchestras has awarded the ASCAP annual prize for adventurous programming 33 times.
ASCAP has singled-out ACO as “the orchestra that has done the most for new American music in the United States”.
Key Developements in ACO's History
1976-77 • Inaugural
concert in Alice Tully Hall, broadcast on National Public Radio and
Voice of America.
1978-79 • Pulitzer Prize awarded for ACO-commissioned
work, Aftertones of Infinity by Joseph Schwantner.
• ASCAP gives ACO first award for adventuresome programming.
• ACO-commissioned Piano
Concerto by John Harbison wins Kennedy Center Friedheim
• The American Music Center awards ACO its first "Letter of
• Time and
pick ACO's Elliott Carter recording under the baton of Paul Lustig
Dunkel as among "Year's Ten Best."
• Ellen Taaffe Zwilich becomes first woman composer to receive Pulitzer
Prize for ACO-commissioned work, Symphony
• NEA awards Challenge grant to initiate endowment fund.
• The American Academy of Arts and Letters awards ACO a special award
for "the cause of American music."
• The orchestra's subscription season at Carnegie Hall, attendance
doubles, and subscriptions triple.
• NEA awards second Challenge grant of $150,000 to augment endowment.
• ACO hosts Composer in Residence, Robert Beaser, through Meet The
Composer Orchestra Residencies Program.
• ACO holds its first reading sessions of works by emerging composers,
through the American Symphony Orchestra League's New Music Project.
• New annual radio series debuts nationally over the American Public
• Hovhaness/Harrison recording makes Billboard Classical Music charts
for three months.
• First national television appearance in the Guggenheim "Works and
• BMI honors ACO with an award for "Outstanding Contribution to
• ACO signs multi-disc agreement with London Records' ARGO label.
• Dennis Russell Davies appointed Music Director after serving as
Principal Conductor for 16 years.
1992-93 • ACO
performs opening concert of American Symphony Orchestra League's
Conference in Carnegie Hall.
• Inauguration of Sonidos
de las Américas Festival of Latin American music.
• First youth concerts given in collaboration with Carnegie Hall's Link
Up! education program.
• New Music Reading Sessions made an ongoing part of ACO's annual
program with five-year support from The Helen F. Whitaker Fund.
• NEA awards third Challenge Grant of $320,000 in support of Sonidos de las Américas.
• ASCAP awards ACO Morton Gould Award for innovative programming.
• Harrison/Ung/McPhee recording on ARGO selected as "Best of the Month"
by Stereo Review.
1996-97 • Carnegie Hall invites ACO to plan special series celebrating
America in the millennium.
1997-98 • ACO "comes of age" with its 21st season, and 75th concert.
• Recording of Philip Glass's Heroes
Symphony is released to wide acclaim, quickly becoming
ACO's best-selling album ever.
• ACO launches 20th Century Snapshots a multi-year series exploring
American music in the Millennium.
• ACO presents Sonidos
de las Américas: Cuba, a festival of Cuban music in
collaboration with more than a dozen community and arts organizations,
culminating six years of planning and research.
• ACO wins 22nd ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, and is singled
out as the "the orchestra that has done the most for new American music
in the United States."
• ACO launches Composer
OutFront Series featuring composer-performers in new
informal crossover events.
• Emerging Composer Fellowships established: new extended professional
development opportunities for emerging composers.
• Music Factory:
Composers in the Schools debuts, bringing composers into
New York City elementary and high schools, exploring the process of
• ECM records releases The
Seasons, ACO's album of music by John Cage.
• ACO conceives the Orchestra
Technology Initiative, a multi-year program exploring the
application of digital technology in orchestral composition and
performance. • ACO receives ASCAP's Morton Gould Award for innovative
programming for its 20th Century Snapshots series.
• Steven Sloane, appointed Music Director Designate, to succeed Dennis
Russell Davies, beginning in 2002.
• ACO inaugurates Coming
to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices, exploring
the constant evolution of American music through the work of immigrant
composers. The project is selected by Americans for the Arts as one of
16 model performing arts programs in the country for integrating the
arts into civic dialogue.
• ACO convenes national conference on technology and the orchestra,
bringing together composers, technologists and music professionals for
artistic and technological exchange.
• ACO celebrates its first 25 years with new commissions made possible
by ASCAP and BMI. • ACO Oral
History Project commences in collaboration with Yale
University, documents ACO's role in American music over the last 25
• ACO receives ASCAP's Jonathan S. Edwards Award for "Strongest
Commitment to New American Music in its 25th Year."
• ACO receives inaugural MetLife Award for Excellence in Community
• Steven Sloane becomes ACO's second Music Director and founding
conductor Dennis Russell Davies becomes ACO's first Conductor Laureate.
• ACO launches Orchestra
Underground, a groundbreaking series designed to challenge
the conventions of the symphony orchestra concert.
• ACO creates Improvise!,
a festival exploring improvisation and the orchestra.
• ACO again receives American Symphony Orchestra League's ASCAP award
for "Strongest Commitment to New American Music."
• ACO wins an unprecedented second consecutive ASCAP Award for
to New American Music," and ACO's 28th ASCAP Award overall.
• ACO launches $2.5 million dollar campaign to establish The Francis
Thorne Fund for Young & Emerging composers.
• ACO expands season to include performances at the Annenberg Center
for the Performing
Arts in Philadelphia, ACO's first concerts outside of New York in 23
• ACO season includes an unprecedented ten world premieres and seven
• Composer Derek Bermel appointed Music
Alive Composer-in-Residence, providing new artistic
guidance for ACO's Orchestra Underground and Composers OutFront
• ACO initiates first collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center in
three sold-out performances.
• ACO expands annual new music readings to include a new lab/reading in
• ACO, in cooperation with American Composers Forum, American Music
Center, the League of American Orchestras, and Meet The Composer
a national orchestral composition discovery network.
• ACO initiates Playing
it UNsafe, the first-ever laboratory for the development
of innovative new work for orchestra.
• ACO's recording initiative launches free streaming music on InstantEncore.com.
ACO announces partnership with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to
commission and premiere new works by emerging composers
• Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute
launches, providing experience to 30 jazz composers in writing for symphony
• George Manahan
becomes ACO's third Music Director
ACO offers first
Internet digital download album available on iTunes, Amazon, and more
• ACO extends
Playing It UNsafe laboratory to create a season-long collaborative incubator for
experimental new orchestra music.
• SONiC - Sounds of a New Century festival launches
with 100+ composers, 16 ensembles, and 24 world premieres in nine days of 21st