Some Questions and Answers, Part 2 - Planning a Season

Sean Schultz asks: "How and when do you decide what pieces are going to be played for the performances?"

Well, when is a lot easier to answer, so I'll do that first. We generally begin planning our seasons in earnest in August of the previous year (ie 14 months before the season opener). Ideally, I have a rough draft by mid-September and a final draft by early January.

How I decide is a bit more complicated. I'll try to give a general overview, but keep in mind that every rule has exceptions.

I start by making a list of all the pieces that I'd like to do. This is akin to the "kid in a candy shop" phenomenon - "ill have three of these, one of those....." Sometimes I'll even page through Daniels' "Orchestral Music" for ideas. Daniels is the essential reference guide for orchestral repertoire - a vast, if certainly incomplete, list of pieces, listed by composer, with timings and orchestrations (what collection of instruments are required by the composer). A typical Daniels listing looks like this:

Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No. 1 12'
optional chorus
4[1.2/pic2.3/] 3[1.2.Eh] 4[1.2.Ebcl.bcl] 4[1.2.3.sarr] - 4 4 3 1 - tmp+6 - 2hp cel str perc: bd, cym, sd, tri, tambn, tamtam, glock, crot, windmachine
Contents - Nocturne; Interlude; Danse guerrière
mvt durations: 5' 3' 4'
Durand Kalmus

What does this mean? The first line in the piece's title and duration. The second states that you can do the piece with or without a chorus. The third line is the orchestration, divided in orchestral groups - first the woodwinds, then the brass, percussion, and the strings. So, to translate the listing above, "Daphnis" requires: 4 flutes, 2 doubling on piccolo (meaning they play both instruments in the piece) and one playing alto flute; 3 oboes, the third of which plays english horn; 4 clarinets, one playing Eb clarinet (the high, shrieky member of the family) and one playing bass clarinet; 4 bassoons, with one playing sarrousophone (similar to a contrabassoon); 4 french horns; 4 trumpets; 3 trombones; 1 tuba; 1 timpani player; 6 percussionists; 2 harps; celesta (the bell-like keyboard instrument used in the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy and Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood); and a string section. The fourth line says which percussion instruments are used: bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, gong, glockenspiel (bells), crotales (pitched mini-cymbals), and wind machine. The next two lines state the names of the movements and their respective durations. The last line list the publishers.

Anyway....Daniels sometimes gives me ideas for programming, as well as pieces that I might want to listen to, particularly more contemporary works. I listen to unfamiliar music quite a lot. Our Executive Director, Jeff Woodruff often will recommend pieces for me to listen to, and lend me the CDs. I also get suggestions from orchestra players and some patrons.

So I make my long wish list. Then I generally pick seven "centerpiece" works around which I will build my programs. These are generally symphonies or longer orchestral works, but sometimes concertos. I look over the history of Harrisburg Symphony performances. If the piece has been played within the past few years, I discard it for now. If it's been many years (or decades) since last performed, I will prioritize the piece.

Then I try to match the large pieces with other works to make programs. I keep in mind what artists I have promised appearances to or which ones I would like to work with, as well as concerto repertoire that I think will suit them. I try to balance old with new, realizing that the period from, say, 1800-1915 will get the bulk of the season. I try to balance nationalities, so the season isn't too American heavy (rarely a problem) or German heavy (often a problem). I try to keep the choices interesting and exciting for the orchestra. And last but not least, I try to make each concert marketable, so generally at least one of the pieces is a big-selling perennial audience favorite.

How do I match pieces? Well, I must admit, I do it much more based on my gut feeling of what will work well together than on theme programming or motivic similarities. I do think about key relationships, ie you wouldn't want to do three pieces in C Major. I also think about pacing - a slow opener should probably not be followed by a ponderous concerto; emotional content - an intense symphony, should not follow an equally intense first half; and old/new relationships - a very avant garde piece probably should go with something a bit more traditional.

This seeming arbitrariness is why I am so often surprised and tickled by relationships between the pieces I program together, like the falling thirds in this last week's concerts. Maybe there is a sort of instinctual genius lurking deep below the surface, after all!

So now I have a seven concert season. Now comes the painful part. It must fit within the orchestra's budget. So I go back to Daniels and figure the orchestra size for each concert, adding up personnel, and comparing the totals with the current season's. Inevitably, the numbers are way too high (generally too much Mahler, Stravinsky and Strauss). So it's back to the drawing board for the second cycle.... then the third and fourth, and so on.

When I have a season that I feel is at least pretty close, I get together with Jeff Woodruff and Bill Schmieding, our operations manager. We discuss my plans in depth, look for weaknesses in the programming, find that the season is too expensive for our budget (if there is one certainty in all this, it is that the season will be too expensive) and make many changes. Then I go off and further refine. We meet several more times. Then I get together with the Artistic Advisory committee of the Board of Directors of the HSO, made up of board members, staff, and musicians from the orchestra. The committee meets twice a year, once to go over proposed programming, and once to assess the past season and propose ideas for the artistic future of the HSO (including, but not only, programming suggestions). I do not need their approval - they are simply there to advise - but the input is invaluable, and it's rare that I leave a meeting without some new, terrific ideas.

Jeff, Bill and I meet some more, and eventually we declare ourselves done, and the brochures are made.

The process for pops is a bit different and I'll discuss that in my next blog.


Some Questions and Answers, Part 1

It's Monday, and I'm having my typical post-concert weekend down day. I was extremely happy with the concerts this past weekend. The orchestra, as always, played their hearts out. Last night, after a lovely dinner reconnecting with an old college friend and his family, I couldn't sleep, because I had the second movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony coursing through my brain. I suppose if I am to have insomnia, there are much worse things to be haunted by.

I am so pleased to be receiving comments on the concert and on the podcasts. I thought it might be nice to address some of the issues, and answer some of the questions I have been posed.

First, as far as sound quality is concerned, I plead "guilty as charged". I basically use the built-in microphone on my iMac G5, and play on the Yamaha upright piano in my office at home. I have just today downloaded some freeware software, called "The Levelator", which supposedly will help even out the levels of my voice and the piano. I will also look into purchasing a higher quality mike to record into. The podcasts are very much a work in progress, and I promise to continue to try improving the sound quality, and the content.

A glossary of terms is an interesting idea, but I think others have already done it better than I could. What probably would make more sense is an accompanying list of applicable terms that could be looked up using either one of the online music dictionaries or a book of musical terms. I will list some suggestion below, with links to the web pages:

Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary: (special thanks to Sean Schultz!)
Music Dictionary:
Dolmetsch Online: (this one also includes many links to other more specific music dictionary websites)

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (the best small volume)
Belwin Pocket Dictionary of Music (there are actually many such volumes, any of which will give you very short definitions of common music terms)

The last thing regarding the podcasts is that I am now accessible through the iTunes store, so those of you who listen on ipods can subscribe to my podcasts by doing an iTunes store podcast search for "Stuart Malina" and pressing the subscribe button.

I'll be back soon with another posting to address some of the questions you have posed.

A Note to my readers/listeners

First of all, thank you for your visits. I hope you are enjoying the blogs and podcasts.

Which brings me to the next point...

I very much want your feedback. If you prefer, leave it anonymously. This is the only way I can continue improving the page. Do you like the content? Is the recording quality too poor? Is the piano clangy? Am I too professorial? All responses are good responses.

Many thanks!


Podcast #10 - Brahms' Fourth Symphony

Could this be my favorite symphony in the repertoire?

Podcast #9 - The Barber Violin Concerto

What can I say.... simply, one of the most beautiful works in the repertoire.

Podcast #8 - Zwilich's Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra

He's back (and badder than ever!) with a discussion of the opener of the HSO's January Masterworks concert. A 20th Century masterpiece for strings.