The Winds of Programming Change

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Off the podium, orchestral programming is one of the most rewarding and challenging activities that I do. (See my link of concerts on this blog to view the whole shebang) Given the recent national conversation regarding diversity (or lack thereof) in orchestral programming, I thought it prudent to look at my own programming for next year with three of the orchestras for which I have the responsibility of programming: the Salt Lake Symphony, Sinfonia Salt Lake, and the University of Utah Philharmonia. I’ve only included “classics” concerts. Excluded are pops, family concerts and the like, as that would greatly skew the “living composer ”category. It’s also hard to determine for certain concerts where some pieces are quite short—for example the December 6 concert with Monika Jalili, which will include songs by Iranian composers, as each song is only about 3 minutes in length. How does one compare that to a larger work? So for the sake of not appearing to “cook the books,” I’ve combined all of those songs into one category, counting them as a value of “one composer.” So here’s the score, out of 44 pieces programmed on classics concerts between 3 orchestras:

Composers of color: 5

Silvestre Revueltas, Shalan Alhamwy, Mohammed Fairouz, Banned Iranian songwriters, Saad Haddad


Women composers: 5

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Stacy Garrop, Fanny Mendelssohn, Mary Lou Prince, Alexandra Pakhmutova


Living composers: 13

Arvo Pärt, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Henry Wolking, Devin Maxwell, Nathaniel Eschler, Stacy Garrop, Mary Lou Prince, Alexandra Pakhmutova, Banned Iranian Composers (some?), +4 Composers for the Utah Arts Festival Commissioning Concert

While trying to program an engaging concert experience is my first goal, I do try my best to react correctly to the changing tides. I’ve no idea if this is a “good average” or not, but based on number of concerts, it appears to be more diverse than both the Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony, both of which had scathing articles (here and here) written earlier this year regarding their programming. (No judgment and not gloating, it’s just a statement of fact). Orchestral programming is exceptionally difficult to balance, considering the weight of the history of the repertoire. No other ensemble relies as much on the past as do orchestras. And therein lies part of the challenge.

So, what do the readers think? Does it look like a good average? And how will audiences respond? That is certainly a question to be answered from the seats next season, and perhaps from the box office in following years. I, for one, remain confident it is a direction we must take.

Feel free to make respectful comments below.

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat


3 thoughts on “The Winds of Programming Change

  1. Sounds to me like you don’t have to answer to a marketing department. There is a reason large orchestras programming is so stodgy and traditional. The data shows audience flock to the familiar and shy away from new pieces. While diversity is a positive goal for its own sake, it won’t solve the larger problem of dwindling audiences.

    • Thanks for your comment. For some orchestras, and maybe for the industry as a whole, yes that is what the data suggests. I think it is an error to assume all orchestras are the same, though. The LA Phil and Seattle Symphony are two orchestras who are doing quite well with quite diverse and forward thinking programs. And there are others, too. Although it is easy to fall prey to that line of thinking, I do not think any major music director “answers” to a marketing department. Rather, it is that department’s job to market the concerts the music director programs. If it is not working and is not a good match for the community and ensemble, the conductor’s contract is not, or should not, be renewed. Simple as that. To answer your other question, at the University, I of course do not need to worry about filling seats (although we do quite well in that regard). But for the other two groups that is a reality, not that ticket sales alone could ever fund the ensembles. Still, there’s ample music by the big names of classical music throughout the seasons (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the boys). The key, at least for me, is to not to assume that is the only thing we can program, nor is it the only thing that audiences want to hear, even if they prefer it. I think that the audience survey approach will miss that point every time.

  2. Dr. Baldwin – I applaud you for your foresight and thought to bring the orchestral world “full circle”! I, for one, will be in attendance at your December concert, happy to support your vision and am one of your biggest fans! The programming is fresh, new, and exciting! I can’t wait! Music truly is the universal language and is the best way to connect us all! Bravo Maestro! ~ Mindi

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