Iron Chef Concerts

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Like a good smorgasbord, choices sit tantalizingly ready to heap onto the plate.  But be careful.  Too much of one helping does not leave room for something else.  Oops, do these things really go together?  Oh no, my pudding has run into the mashed potatoes…

Programming concerts is one of my favorite things to do.  And most frustrating, like those Sudoku puzzles with both numbers and letters.  So many options!  I spend each spring choosing music for a variety of concerts.  I am blessed with many opportunities to conduct different ensembles, each with a different raison d’etre.

To be sure, for my educationally based ensembles at the University of Utah there is a curricular element.  Even in a 4-year program, students won’t play all of the music they will encounter in the profession, but they had better get a good helping of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc.  It is exciting to conduct masterworks that the students are encountering for the first time.  The energy they bring to the music is contagious, and their first encounter with a major work can be magical.

For Salt Lake Symphony, the process is a bit different.  Certainly I want to choose music that highlights the ensemble.  But as volunteer musicians (and darn good ones at that), the musicians are an integral part of the programming activity.  They give me a list (of biblical proportions) that takes some time to whittle down.  Then, it is up to me to put together concerts that have coherence for the audience as well as serve as good repertoire for the orchestra.

Oh, yeah, the audience–the entire point of performing music.   This is where creativity comes into the process.  A good program is like the perfect multi-course meal.  It needs balance, variety and diversity.  (But it need not look like a Happy Meal, and it better not taste like one!).   This is where it gets fun.  Like the contestants on Iron Chef, each conductor can have a different creative vision for a concert or entire season.  The possibilities are almost endless.  A few basic ingredients can be transformed in a myriad of ways.

Musicians want to play (and audiences want to hear) the music that they love.  But it has been my experience that most of us have a very narrow definition of what we like.  It is a challenge, and a fun one at that, to find ways to introduce new tastes into a concert.  Maybe it is only an appetizer, but sometimes it can be a main course.  I think the key is to program with respect.  Once everyone sees commitment to the presentation, it seems to go down very well.

James Dixon, one of my conducting teachers, once advised:

“Never conduct something you don’t believe in.”

Like a good chef, the musician who is dedicated to quality, commitment, vision, and presentation, can transform the ingredients into a fine “auditory dining experience.“  Bon appetit!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

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