Context versus Urtext – Part 2 – The First Time We met

So you have become a Music Director, bravo!  Time to work on that repertoire bucket list…well yes, but not yours!..Here are a couple of questions to ponder after becoming a Music Director:

  • Is the orchestra now your orchestra?
  • Is it your job to create a single vision for its future?

If your answer is yes to either, then no need to read any further and best of luck!

First meetingI have become a music director in varying circumstances, from a contentious ending with the previous one, to one of a start-up group, to replacing someone beloved, and then being on the flip side watching transitions after my tenure.  It occurred to me early on that a legacy is the future we try to leave ahead and not the glory we hope to leave behind.  In the end (and there is always an end), we are the caretakers, or the delivery drivers, we’re not the truck!  Whether contentious or not, it’s not about whether or not we (old cliché dead ahead) took the orchestra to the next level.  It’s whether or not we set it up for the orchestra to get to the next level after we leave.  But most importantly of all, the ideal future we leave should be about the orchestra becoming relevant, or even more relevant to the way of life in the community.  It should be about a life cycle….. not a Bruckner cycle!

Now about that repertoire bucket list.  There should never be the mindset that now you have a new gig, that it’s time to complete that Mahler cycle which quite frankly with an orchestra of limited resources and talent pool is like trying to drive a John Deere the wrong way on a freeway with the scoop down, blindfolded (Ok I suppose No. 1,4 and maybe 5 are doable but only once every few years).  Slogging through huge works or ridiculously hard repertoire badly will hardly endear an orchestra to their community. Neither will trying to promote that bad composer you went to college with.  Now you can program new music, if you do it in context i.e as part of a theme.

So what to do?  Well, trust your audience and ask them what they want to hear and then they will trust you back if you program at least some of the popular requests.  Simple concept I know, but like I wrote about in Part 1, you have to build their trust so that they will like you, and more importantly the orchestra.  That doesn’t mean you leave all the programming up to the audience, but I have found that they like a lot of standard rep that you would program anyway, but because you asked them, they are grateful to you for including them in the process, and that they have become part of an  inclusive experience.  Don’t forget to ask the orchestra either, I remember I got unsolicited advice from a musician when as an assistant conductor I was asked to program and conduct a concert in a Classical series.  He suggested I  do a work he thought the orchestra would respond well to, one that they hadn’t done in a while.  I took that advice and I’m glad I did, because it did go well!  From that point on I always put it out there that I am interested in their ideas also.

It’s easy to do, just do an audience/orchestra survey, whether it’s one in the program book that they fill in, drop in a box or send back in.  Now it’s even easier online through social media, email etc… I listed categories such as Symphonies, Overtures, Concerti, Choral/Vocal, tone poems, Pops themes etc…I did it every couple of years and then in the following season put an asterisk by each work that was an “audience (or orchestra) choice”.

I did take it to an extreme once which turned into a huge win-win.  I was on the local NPR station in Springfield MO actually helping with their pledge drive since they recorded and broadcast every Symphony concert and did a monthly show previewing it.  With 5 minutes to go, we were $150 short of the goal for the hour and it just so happened that I was in the midst of programming next season and trying to  decide which Beethoven Symphony to do the following season.  I had left it at either, 2,5,6 or 8.  Then it hit me and on the spur of the moment I put it out there: The next caller who pledges $150 will get to decide which one of these 4 Symphonies by Beethoven we do next season, 2,5,6 or 8…..10 seconds later someone pledged $200 and chose no. 8 (3 others were on hold hoping to choose).  Later that week she bought season tickets AND 10 single tickets for her friends to hear the Symphony she chose!  So doing the math, NPR beat their goal, we made about $600 in ticket sales, and we got to play Beethoven 8!  I’d say that’s a win, win win!

I’m not saying that all  programming should go this way, but it proved a point that audiences (and musicians) are hungry to be involved, to be included in the conversation at the very least.  After all let’s not forget that as stakeholders, the audience is around the longest, up to 50+ years to turn over completely and the orchestra nearly as long.  At all times we have to build their trust in us, and we do that not by getting them to listen to us, but by us listening to them, which will go along way in winning the battle for relevance and sustainability.

Part 3 – Thinking inside the box!

1 thought on “Context versus Urtext – Part 2 – The First Time We met”

  1. Thank you for addressing this topic. I have often noted with frustration the tendency of regional orchestras to program as many masterworks as possible on a concert (with, of course, limited rehearsal time and barely-paid musicians), and wondered why being the all-you-can-eat buffet of classical music seems like a good idea. I’ve also noticed a certain disdain for audience selections amongst the orchestra, as though playing music that people want to hear is a bad thing. There’s a reason why everyone recognizes and wants to hear the “William Tell” Overture: it’s awesome.

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