Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Art of Programming

One of the pleasurable responsibilities I have as the Music Director of the Colonial Symphony is to put programs together that make sense artistically as individual experiences as well as part of an entire season. I think of this process in a similar manner to fine dining on two levels: one is a single culinary experience of the highest caliber, where every dish has its own place within the meal; the second is about dining over several nights at the same restaurant, where one has the opportunity to experience the truth of a chef’s artistic aesthetic.

In the orchestral world, I want a listener to feel as if they went to a concert that left them uplifted, as if the musical meal gave them energy with which to leave the concert hall. These concerts should work well as individual events and also as performances that connect to each other over the course of a year. I call this fine aural dining!

So how does this all come together?

Let me give you some examples from the Colonial Symphony’s current season of four concerts, which will provide a window into the programmatic philosophy I employ:

The first concert on October 24th at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts needed to feature a world premiere by Harold Meltzer. This composition would be the culmination of a Music Alive Residency we received from the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer, a prestigious award given to eight orchestras nationally each year (as a composer, Harold was the runner-up for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and has received many honors for his original voice). In terms of my programmatic thought, he is able to write contemporary music that has both high craft and beautifully long melodic lines. It is also music that is delivered with wit and rhythmic humor. When discussing the work, we originally were going to call it Forgiveness, but because the piece was beginning to take shape as more of a fun fantasy, that colored my approach moving forward, even though a final title has yet to be chosen.

I needed to put pieces around it that were of similar concept. I first thought of Mendelssohn as a composer, partly because he has an excellent sense of musical humor, and also because he can spin a melody within a rhythmic voice that feels natural and playful. This is similar to how Harold writes. There’s also lightness in his approach, which would work with Harold’s evolving ideas. The Symphony No. 4 “Italian” is inventive and fresh, melodically centered and vibrant, full of smiles and good natured fun. In other words, it would be a wonderful compliment to our world premiere in terms of its vibe and sound world.

The next task was to come up with a work that would fit in between these two gems. I wanted to do a concerto with our concertmaster Jorge Avila, who projects such strength and affection in his playing. I also needed a piece that was again melodically rich and one that would add some emotional balance to the playful qualities in the Meltzer and Mendelssohn. Robert Schumann came to mind as a composer who is perhaps most famous for his narrative gifts – he wrote music that is completely singable and beautiful. This idea led me to his Violin Concerto, a work that is underperformed in the United States, yet possesses high-level craft and melodic genius. It seemed to be a perfect fit for this program – one whose mood gives contour to a program that already has plenty of bonhomie.

I had my first program – Harold Meltzer’s World Premiere, Schumann’s Violin Concerto with Jorge Avila, and then Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian.” And it all comes in at 60 minutes of music: a good length, especially when you consider the time between each work, the fact that I introduce each piece to the audience, and then of course an intermission of about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Since this program was light, I didn’t want the next on December 6th to be too heavy. It would be like starting a dinner with a light tomato soup and then having a heaping-helping of barbecued ribs! Both are great dishes individually, but make no sense together! This concert occurs at a time when so many people are enjoying the spirit of the holidays, so I wanted to perform pieces that fit the ethos of the season. This thought led me to program works such as Johann Strauss’s Emperor Waltz, Leroy Anderson’s Sleighride and Christmas Festival Overture, John Williams Themes from the Polar Express, Randol Bass’s Gloria and Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate with singers from local high school choirs, John Finnegen’s Christmas Sings and Bill Holcombe’s Festival sounds of Hanukah for audience participation, and famous arrangements of Winter Wonderland and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, all of which are tailor made to make people happy, which sometimes is helpful after a day of heavy shopping! Beyond, each work possesses beautiful melodies and has tremendous orchestrational craft. This fits with my first program both in weight and quality, while at the same time offering a completely different musical experience.

For the February 13th program I wanted a foil to the December concert. I needed to find music that had a connection to what comes before, yet is different in spirit and sound. Since I had used Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate on the previous program, I thought it would be interesting to perform his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as connective tissue. The works are very different, even though the composer has an aural thread in his miraculous voice. Also, to make it fresh beyond my interpretive musical ideas, I thought it would be fun to put some of the musicians in the house so that the music literally surrounds the audience. This is possible because we will be performing in the amazing acoustic of the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts, which allows this sort of theatrical option. Because of that dramatic element, I next came to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which is a piece of quintessential American dance music; although to keep things interesting in the vein of Eine Kleine, I thought of presenting it with a nod to its conception: I approached Nancy Turino and the esteemed NJ Dance Theater Ensemble for a collaboration, which will make for a beautifully realized interpretation of the piece, featuring both orchestra and dancers on stage together. Finally, since other inventive ideas were a part of the emerging program, I thought of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, a Faustian tale that can be performed with actors. However in our case, I decided to approach bestselling author and voice over specialist Alison Larkin, a phenomenally talented artist, who would have the ability to create voices for all the characters and narrate this tale with dynamic force. I had my third program, different from the first two, but part of the seasonal arch.

Finally, for the last concert on May 8th at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts again, I wanted something dramatic to keep the flow going from the previous concert; although this time I wanted the audience to focus solely on music while experiencing some sort of narrative. I began to think of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which I conducted on Broadway at the Gershwin Theater in 1997. I went about contacting soloists from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and friends from the Broadway production and received enthusiastic responses. I next began to work on a chorus and was able to engage the wonderful Anne Matlack and her amazing choir Harmonium. Finally there are smaller parts for which I will be holding auditions in the Fall. Gifted collegians drawn from our local colleges including Drew University and Montclair State University, where I am also a professor, will make up the balance of the cast. This would cap off an amazing season of music.

Each piece chosen this year is a work I love – I can sincerely conduct every one of them with honest passion. I believe these are also works that the Colonial Symphony’s musicians will love performing. This programmatic approach is something I believe creates a unified artistic experience for the concertgoer whether they go to one concert or all. These folks can partake in events that are delicious for the ears, exciting for the heart, intellectually rich, and just plain fun. The best part is that they will hear music performed with tremendous skill, precision, and youthful enthusiasm.

I hope this insight helps you understand how an orchestral season takes form. For the Colonial Symphony, it’s a joyful journey through some of the greatest sounds human imagination has ever conjured! I hope you’ll join us!

More information about Colonial Symphony events can be found at or by calling 973-984-7400.

No comments: