Think of the great patrons of music, and some resonant names come to mind: Nikolaus, Prince Esterhazy, for instance, who for three decades employed Joseph Haydn; or Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who funded Italian baroque luminaries.
But cast around for their successors — the most important commissioners of living composers — and you encounter a string of initials: BBC, WDR, SWR.
The fertile generosity of these public broadcasters (the latter two are Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Südwestrundfunk, regional radio entities in Cologne and Stuttgart) is the subject of this year’s Focus Festival at the Juilliard School. It opened on Friday with a stimulating concert by the New Juilliard Ensemble in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in Manhattan.
Under the banner “On the Air! A Salute to 75 Years of International Radio Commissioning,” the festival presents five more programs, through Feb. 1, that reveal how much of a lifeline noncommercial radio has become to composers since the end of World War II.
The conductor Joel Sachs, who designed the festival and led Friday’s concert, said in a phone interview that a British composer had told him bluntly: “We’d all starve without the BBC.”
While the festival draws attention to the wealth of opportunities created by international broadcasters, it also points a finger at the glaring absence of similar initiatives in the United States.
“The problem with commercial radio is that it doesn’t want to do anything as esoteric as classical music,” Mr. Sachs said, “let alone commission contemporary music.”
Mr. Sachs said that in his research he had learned of a handful of new works commissioned by isolated American broadcasters, including stations in Minnesota and Cincinnati. But these numbers paled next to the statistics he gathered of radio commissions from Europe and Canada in the postwar era.
The BBC supplied a list, possibly incomplete, of nearly 1,600 compositions. Radio France listed 2,300 titles. German regional broadcasters were each responsible for hundreds of works. Canadian composers have benefited from the robust support of the CBC, which commissioned some 1,200 pieces.
These broadcasters are cultural powerhouses, and not just on the airwaves. Most have their own ensembles, including symphony orchestras and choirs, and run festivals like the Witten Days for New Chamber Music, organized by the WDR, or the Donaueschingen Festival, a storied engine of avant-garde music that is now under the auspices of the SWR. Each summer the BBC Proms whip up public enthusiasm and draw huge crowds with televised concerts that include new commissions.
Some countries make a point of targeting their commissioning largess toward their own composers. One example is Finnish Radio, which sees fostering new Finnish music as part of its mission.
That’s how a Modernist gem like Jouni Kaipainen’s “Trois Morceaux de l’Aube” came into being. It received a superb performance on Friday by the cellist Sasha Scolnik-Brower and the pianist Michalis Boliakis. A radio commission drew this darkly ruminative work, shot through with flashes of rhythmic exuberance, in 1981, when the composer was 25.
In Germany, where the postwar occupying powers designed a decentralized broadcasting landscape free of government control, the mission is broader.
In a phone interview, Harry Vogt, who has headed the new music program at the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) for decades, said he sees it as his responsibility “to produce things, far from commercial considerations, that wouldn’t come into being on their own.” The balancing act there lies in staying accountable to the public through programs — “you don’t want to do things that interest nobody,” he said — while granting composers the creative freedom to develop their art away from the pressures of the market.
Mr. Vogt said his commissions also extend beyond the concert hall to sound installations in public and industrial spaces in order to reach new listeners. “There is always an educational component, too,” he said, “though you try to avoid it reeking of pedagogy.”
Friday’s concert proved that, in casting the net wide, the patronage of the broadcasters reels in works of varying quality. I was underwhelmed by Colin Matthews’s “A Voice to Wake,” with its vocal line that felt somehow both sibylline and mechanical. The Korean-German composer Younghi Pagh-Paan’s “U-MUL (The Well),” commissioned by WDR, relied a little too heavily on watery sound painting.
On the other hand, listeners are indebted to Radio France for Akira Nishimura’s beguiling “Corps d’Arc-en-Ciel,” with its brilliant play on density and light. And, in this context, it was instructive to hear Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Archeologia del Telefono,” an instrumental work infused with his trademark fragility, in which brittle sounds hover on the edge of imperceptibility, carrying subtle charges of humor.
In concert, Sciarrino’s music fascinates in part because of the odd techniques used to draw sounds from the instrument. I couldn’t help but wonder how a radio listener would interpret the dry flutter produced by a violinist bowing what looked like a Post-it note tacked to her instrument. The esoteric sound world of such works requires an even more intense concentration on the part of the radio listener who, unlike the audience in the room, is literally all ears.