The Art of Commissioning
Yang Liping's Rite of Spring will be one of Stanford Live's co-productions in the 2019-20 season.
Chris Lorway & Rob Bailis
On a cold Friday afternoon in January 2019, about 100 people gathered at a small rehearsal hall in Toronto. The group was evenly split between artists and supporters who had come together for the first reading of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, a new music theater work based on the ragtime composer’s only opera. The project has been in development for years, and this reading represented a critical moment in its evolution. It was the final major workshop focused on the integration of a new libretto and contemporary musical arrangements before the work moves into its staging and production phase in advance of its world premiere at Stanford Live in 2020.
Ross Manson, the artistic director of Volcano Theatre (the Toronto-based company spearheading the project in association with the Moveable Beast Collective), introduced the creative team and described both the work done to date and what was still to come. The audience was composed of leaderd from the Canadian artistic community (whose feedback at this stage in the process could be extremely helpful) and another cohort integral to the success of teh work - it's coproducing partners.
"Co-producers allow artists and companies to test the boundaries of their art form and trespass into unfamiliar territories."
Commissioning and co-producing are critical components of the current arts ecology. These terms are seen as synonymous, but there is a slight difference between the two. The Cambridge Dictionary defines commissioning as a process “to formally choose someone to do a special piece of work, or to formally ask for a special piece of work from someone.” Co-producing, on the other hand, flips the origin of the idea from the commissioner to the artist, who assembles a group of supporters to help realize a new work they desire to create.
“For new work that is being built to tour, especially work with a potential global impact, co-producing support is essential,” says Ross Manson. “It not only adds a revenue stream that helps the work come into being (usually the most difficult phase to fund, since it requires a leap of faith), but it also adds a stamp of approval that can leverage support from other institutions and individuals. The importance of both of these components in the development of live performance work cannot be underestimated.”
In a sense, commissioning and co-producing is the lifeblood of the industry. It provides a way for communities to participate directly in the life and work of the artist and to feel a different sense of investment and relationship with both the creative process and the final product. It also allows presenters, curators, and audiences alike to consider the life cycle of an artist— what it means to engage with and invest in an artist's body of work, rather than just a single piece selected for a season’s program.
Creative team Jessie Montgomery, Weyni Mengesha, and Ross Manson take a look at the original printed score for Treemonisha, hand-delivered to The Library of Congress by Scott Joplin in 1911.
Through these activities, investment partners focus foremost on creativity, risk, and, as a result, the complexities of trial and error. Very rarely (if ever) does a work leap onto the stage fully formed. It will go through many iterations, both before and after its premiere, as it finds its way to its best possible incarnation.
“Co-producers allow artists and companies to test the boundaries of their art form and trespass into unfamiliar territories,” declares says Farooq Chaudhry, a well-respected producer who has worked with Akram Khan, Nitin Sawhney, and Yang Liping. “As well as providing cash funds and physical resources, an institutional commitment built on a strong artistic agenda manifests itself in critical feedback during the creative process. I have no doubt that without co-producers and commissioners, we would not be able to produce daring and adventurous work, which is essential for keeping our art relevant and meaningful.”
The act of commissioning has largely migrated to institutions rather than individuals. Rarely does one organization have the capacity to develop a major new work on its own. This is where consortia really make all the difference. When organizations of different sizes, capacities, audiences, and interests work together, they can service a commission as it develops far more effectively than doing this as a free standing organization.
Even in competing markets, organizations are finding ways to work together around residency and commissioning that previously would have been unlikely if not impossible. The multi-year commission and residency project between Stanford Live and Cal Performances is a great example. The Koret Foundation generously provided both organizations with funding to help bring unique work to the Bay Area that could only happen via partnership. And The Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, launched by the Hewlett Foundation in 2017, provides an additional opportunity to collectively premiere major new works like Jimmy López and Nilo Cruz’s oratorio Dreamers and Treemonisha in the Bay Area, ensuring more people get to experience them.
“We have accomplished so much together that we simply could not have accomplished apart,” says Rob Bailis, interim artistic director at Cal Performances. “Our collaboration on these particular initiatives was well-balanced and conceived from the beginning and played to our very different strengths as partners.”
The Kronos Performing Arts Association (KPAA) has commissioned more than 1,000 new works and arrangements for the Kronos Quartet since the group was founded in 1973. Many of the pieces written for the ensemble have been recorded, performed by other groups, and used in dance, theater, and film projects.
Kronos Quartet performed The Green Fog in our 2017-18 season.
One of the more recent Kronos projects commissioned by SFFilm and Stanford Live was The Green Fog, an experimental film homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. After its premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and later that year at Stanford Live, the film got picked up for a commercial run in the U.S. and Europe. More recently, the film was awarded the L.A. Film Critics Association’s Independent/Experimental
Film Award and was named by Vulture as one of the 10 best movie scores of 2018.
"It would not be possible to commission work without an adventurous list of partners," proclaims Janet Cowperthwaite, managing director of KPAA. "With this project and others, Stanford Live is impacting creative expression around the world, literally."
Being attached to works that recieve these types of accolades is a great way to build an institutional brand. As the work travels to other markets domestically and internationally, it carries the Stanford Live name and signals to both artists and potential future partners the organization's commitment to investing in living artists.
"Without new artistic voices, the times in which we live cannot be reflected back to us with the richness and depth that helps us understand them," says Manson. "And without the essential support of commissioners, these new voices can't find their way to the stage."
For artists to know that their work will have a life over several seasons - traversing geographies, communities, and venues - is a very exciting prospect. It also opens up the possibility for each of those communities to influence that work in its own way, within its own context for the project. And for universities, it provides an opportunity to engage artists in forward-thinking research and artistic development.
"It's becoming increasingly clear that without new art, our cultural institutions will fossilize," says composer Samuel Adams, whose piece Movements (for us and them) will receive its U.S. premiere at Stanford Live this spring. "New art is not only a necessary tool to probe our contemporary experience, but it also, at its very best, injects new energy and meaning into the body of older work we already know and love. Beyond this, the commissioning of new work provides an institution like Stanford University with the opportunity to articulate its vision as one that leans - emphatically- into the future."
Philharmonia Orchestra, London
March 18, 2019
Bing Concert Hall
Australian Chamber Orchestra
March 31, 2019
Bing Concert Hall