Mission & History

aco-40th-logo-for-webNow in its 40th season, American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is the only orchestra in the world dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers.

ACO identifies today’s brightest emerging composers, champions prominent established composers as well as those lesser-known, and increases regional, national, and international awareness of the infinite variety of American orchestral music, reflecting geographic, stylistic, and temporal diversity. ACO also serves as an incubator of ideas, research, and talent; as a catalyst for growth and change among orchestras; and as an advocate for American composers and their music. To date, ACO has performed music by nearly 800 American composers, including more than 350 world premieres and newly commissioned works.

In pursuit of its singular mission, ACO maintains an unparalleled range of activities, including an annual concert series at Carnegie Hall, commissions, recordings, radio broadcasts, educational programs, new music reading sessions, composer residencies and fellowships, as well as special projects designed to advance the field. Conductor George Manahan joined ACO as Music Director beginning with the 2011 season. Only the third music director in ACO’s history, his tenure ushers in a new era of innovative music in the most diverse styles, with an attention to detail and a performance level without equal. In 2013 Manahan was joined by Artistic Director Derek Bermel in a unique leadership team that involves composers in the artistic decision making.

The idea to create ACO originated in 1975 when composer Francis Thorne and Dennis Russell Davies were discussing plans for the 40th anniversary of the American Composers Alliance. As Davies recalls, “We started talking about the fact that American orchestras don’t play much American music, and that led to the idea of an orchestra that would fill that gap.” Davies agreed to serve as principal conductor and music advisor. The orchestra, which was assembled from New York’s top musicians with expertise in contemporary music, held its inaugural concert in February 1977 at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. ACO moved to its current home at Carnegie Hall for its 10th anniversary season. Among the distinguished artists who have appeared with ACO are Leonard Slatkin, Michael Tilson Thomas, Laurie Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman, André Watts, Deborah Voigt, and Emanuel Ax.

The Orchestra’s commissioning program is acknowledged as the leading program of its kind, generating more new American symphonic works since its commencement than any other. ACO has distinguished itself by providing many composers with their first orchestral commissions, among them Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Joseph Schwantner, both of whom received the Pulitzer Prize for their ACO-commissioned work.

ACO has produced a number of extraordinary initiatives featuring concerts, commissions, master classes, symposia, community dialogues and professional development activities. From 1999 to 2001, 20th-century Snapshots celebrated the millennium with an 11-concert chronicle of American themes. From 1994 to 1999, Sonidos de las Américas, six one-week festivals extended ACO’s mandate to include the music of Latin America. ACO launched Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices in 2000, an exploration of the evolution of American music through the work of immigrant composers. ACO convened Orchestra Tech, a National Conference on Technology and the Orchestra, in 2001, which became an ongoing program to encourage the creation, performance, and development of music that unites orchestral forces with new technology. In 2004, the Improvise! Festival encouraged the integration of improvisation and the orchestra.

ACO’s Orchestra Underground made its debut in February 2004 at the newly constructed, state-of-the-art Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. The series challenges conventional notions about orchestral music, deconstructing the symphonic experience, with unusual instrumentations and multimedia collaborations. Orchestra Underground has included on its programs innovative new works with filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, laptopists, and software designers, and involves some of today’s brightest composers. Many of these artists have not previously worked with an orchestra.

In Fall 2006, ACO undertook its first collaborative concerts with Jazz at Lincoln Center, performing three sold-out concerts at Rose Hall and extending the orchestra’s interest in improvisation. In 2007, ACO launched Playing It UNsafe, the nation’s first professional laboratory for the creation of cutting-edge new orchestral music that stretches the limits of possibilities for the orchestra, with open rehearsals, readings, discussions, and laboratory performances featuring experimental new concepts in orchestra music.

In the last three seasons alone, ACO has unveiled a number of barrier-breaking programs, including the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a program that identifies, trains, and encourages jazz composers to extend their work to the realm of the symphony orchestra, and provides subsidy, mentoring, and coaching in the creation and performance of new work by these jazz composers. In October 2011 and October 2015, the orchestra produced SONiC: Sounds of a New Century, a landmark festival of 21st century music created by composers age 40 and under. The festivals featured an astounding 125 composers, with 16 ensembles and 14 performances in nine days. SONiC performances were broadcast and webcast around the globe, and the festival was highlighted by several press outlets as one of the top musical events of the year.

ACO’s professional development initiatives include the annual Underwood New Music Readings and Commission. These afford emerging composers, selected though a national search, the opportunity to hear their works performed for the first time. Following the Readings, one participating composer is awarded a commission for a work to be performed at Carnegie Hall. ACO also offers composer fellowships and residencies, which allow composers to work with the orchestra over the course of one or more seasons. In 1999, ACO launched Music Factory, an innovative educational program that places composers in schools, teaching students about music by allowing them to create their own. ACO’s educational activities now reach students throughout New York City.

In 2008, expanding on the success of its New Music Readings, ACO introduced EarShot, the first-ever national partnership created to strengthen and support orchestras in their commitment to up-and-coming American composers and their music. The program identifies emerging American orchestral composers, provides composers with professional-level working experience with orchestras from every region of the country, and increases awareness of these composers and access to their music throughout the industry through readings and composer-development programs. EarShot programs have taken place from San Diego to Nashville to Buffalo, NY.

In 2005, ACO established a new multi-year residency at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania that continued through 2010. The residency brought ACO outside of New York City for the first time in two decades, with a series of concerts, new music readings, and educational and outreach activities.

On January 31, 2012, ACO performed a landmark concert celebrating the 75th birthday of quite possibly our nation’s most renowned American composer, Philip Glass. Featuring the U.S. premiere of Glass’ Symphony No. 9, the concert marked ACO’s much-anticipated return to Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for the first time since April of 2007.

ACO has 25 recordings available on ARGO, MusicMasters, CRI, ECM, Point, Tzadik, Nonesuch, Phoenix USA, and New World labels Records. ACO performances have been broadcast on American Public Radio, National Public Radio, and Voice of America. In 2009, ACO commenced an online audio initiative with InstantEncore.com, Amazon and iTunes, making recordings of ACO’s groundbreaking Orchestra Underground programs available worldwide. ACO’s digital album, Orchestra Underground: X10D, was released in June 2012. In 2016, ACO released SONiC Double Live, a collection of orchestral premieres drawn from American Composers Orchestra’s ground-breaking 2011 SONiC Festival of 21st century music written by composers 40 and under.

Among the honors ACO has received are a special award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a proclamation from the New York City Council, and the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction “for unique dedication to the music of American composers.” BMI has honored ACO for its outstanding contribution to American music. ACO has been awarded the ASCAP annual prize for adventurous programming 35 times, and has been singled out by ASCAP as “the orchestra that has done the most for new American music in the United States.”