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

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Thoughts on Mozart’s Coda

To me, the opportunity to perform a masterwork is similar to being allowed to touch a sculpture by a great artist like Michelangelo or Rodin. To feel every texture and contour, tracing your fingers where the master artist made his/her creation; each texture, rise and fall an imprint on eternity. What’s more, if you look deeply enough, there is artistic DNA embedded there. And like a scientist, secrets will be revealed to the performing musician who studies and prepares with patience, focus and openness. Then those secrets soon begin to work their inner magic on the initiate.

MozartsCoda_digital poster

A musical score that weaves through the personal landscape while still clothed in tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is one of those works that is as satisfying both to the audience as well as to the performers–intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We will preface the massive K.626 with one of Mozart’s other final and fantastically personal choral works, also written in the last months of his life, the ever-so-poignant Ave verum corpus, K. 618. Tender and introspective, it provides a perfect scene-setter to the Requiem.

Yes, I’m excited about this weekend’s performance. I cannot assure that you will be transported to a different plane of existence, but why take the chance that you may miss out? It’s something special! I hope you can join us.

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Mozart’s Coda
Saturday May 19, 2018 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Salt Lake City
Julie Wright Costa, soprano, Kirstin Chavez, mezzo-soprano, Robert Breault, tenor, Seth Keeton, bass
Utah Voices, chorus

Mozart Ave verum corpus
Mozart Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem has long been hailed as one of the great masterpieces of western art. To listen to this music is to be transported to a different time and space. Come hear the Salt Lake Symphony, Utah Voices and U of U Faculty Voice Quartet perform this masterpiece, as we bring our season to a close with style and gravitas. It’s a fitting end to a grand season of music.

Tickets: $15.
Available from utahvoices.org, or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)

 

13 Days of Relatively Unknown Halloween Music

Pupmpkin Ensemble2A few holiday seasons ago, I posted a list of unknown Christmas pieces. (You can prepare for your holiday listening here, if so inclined). But for those still in the holiday of the moment, here are 13 deserving selections for Halloween that are not often played. In some cases of longer works with multiple movements, I have included a video link to only one movement. But be sure to check out the entire work. Happy Haunted Listening!

  1. Luigi Boccherini: La Casa del Diavolo: Symphony No. 6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cjmFbQnsmc
  1. Aram Khatchaturian: Waltz from Masquerade Suite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rRCDjTgdaY
  1. Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWG-J1VHtNE
  1. Dead Can Dance: Stretched on Your Grave https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2RNLn4EfMI
  1. Cesar Franck: Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Huntsman) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FOijcEclw4
  1. George Chadwick: Tam O’Shanter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETtk8DjDvEQ
  1. Bing Crosby: The Headless Horseman (Disney, 1949) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysNSKrH8hHo
  1. George Rochberg: Night Music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoQ9HiK_SNg
  1. John Corigliano: Three Hallucinations from Altered States https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHvYUkNAXSs
  1. George Crumb: Black Angels https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sffh9spQopA
  1. Michael Daugherty: Viola Zombie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KXBT6N06FQ
  1. Claude Debussy: La Chute de la Maison Usher (Fall of the House of Usher-Unfinished Opera) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gq_jGP-vmk
  1. Bernard Herrmann: The Devil and Daniel Webster Concert Suite from the Film. (Herrmann utilized traditional folk music for this score including, “Devil’s Dream”, “Springfield Mountain”, and a diabolical version of “Pop Goes The Weasel” all twisted into something not quite right). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB9K7gHoBIg

2015, Before the Downbeat

Artwork Credit: Leah Renaldo

The Night the Lights Went Out On Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovksy's_signatureThe principal horn player had finished his solo with aplomb and the orchestra effortlessly elided into the new theme. All were inspired by the direction in which the second movement was headed. This followed an electrifying first movement, then a pregnant pause between movements that held the audience expectantly poised for more. Then, 31 bars into the glorious second movement, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony came to a grinding halt.

The concert was going better than expected, the orchestra was tight, the emotional swells more effective than they ever had been in rehearsal and the adrenaline was pumping. Then the lights went out. Literally. The concert had experienced a force majeur. The technology we rely upon had failed.

Special kudos go to the double bass section who completed their phrase in the dark. After the few seconds (that felt much longer) the emergency lights went up, and following an appropriate pause to see if it was all going to self-correct, I decided I must leave the stage to find out what was happening. The audience remained silent, not wanting to leave the emotional tracks we had so thoroughly established. Though now they were also expectantly poised in another way.

It became apparent the problem was campus-wide and not likely to be soon fixed, so we cancelled the remainder of the performance, promising a return evening. The audience sighed. The air had been let out of the balloon.

We had been doing an excellent job of bringing out Tchaikovsky’s expectations and surprises in the score. I espouse much of Leonard B. Meyer’s theories in preparing a score. His Emotion and Meaning in Music is required reading for my conducting students. One of the basic tenets of his theory is that our emotional response to music is based on the careful manipulation of consistency (expected style) with careful balance of delay or surprise in those expectations. Basically stated, our emotional response to music is based on the unexpected.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is an extremely well-composed piece, with a loose program revolving around a fate-motive that appears in different guises, some obvious, some hidden—all surprises in terms of expectations. Even his chord choices in the symphony’s introduction are a study in the effectiveness of changing expectations. The problem was a power outage was not part of the performance. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not performance art, nor even like those of his countryman Alexander Scriabin where visual colors are integrated to certain compositions. The power outage was unexpected on all levels of our expected experience.

Musicians deal with technology failures on a fairly regular basis. Reeds that split, valves that stick, strings that break are all part of the orchestral experience. But a power outage goes beyond the ability of the musicians to address or fix. The musical surprise and resolution that awaited both the musicians on the stage and the audience was taken away, ironically by the chance of fate. To say it was a let down is an understatement.

This unexpected surprise did not have a deep emotional effect until much later in the evening. Once the adrenaline of the evening and lighting failure wore off, the emotional ride bottomed out. To be sure, musicians experience this as a normal part of performing. But the interruption of the music created an unusual lack of resolution and deep emotional morass that many have reported feeling, both musicians and audience alike.

For most events, audience would leave saying, “Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” But this does not happen with great music. Immediately, and for the past several days, there have been inquiries from all corners about when will the concert be rescheduled. When will we finish Tchaikovsky’s symphony?

That Tchaikovsky wrote a piece that demands completion is explicit of his genius as a composer and a validation of the greatness of this particular piece of music. Like a well-crafted story we simply must follow it to the conclusion, through the many transitions and cadences, to the final exclamation point. Amazingly, this is the case even if you do not know the programmatic element of the music and significance of the fate theme. It works with or without the program because it provides a narrative that can be followed on a deeper level. Descriptive words can help explain, but they are not necessary for understanding and meaning.

“In ‘pure’ instrumental music, the strategies chosen by composers to create unity were responsive to the tenets of Romanticism…Even in the absence of an explicit program, motivic continuity created a kind of narrative coherence. Like the chief character in a novel, the ‘fortunes’ of the main motive–its development, variation, and encounters with other ‘protagonists’–served as a source of constancy throughout the unfolding of the musical process.” Meyer: Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (1989)

The good news is that we will indeed finish the story. And I am pleased to report that the concert will be rescheduled. The Utah Phil’s Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot will be Thursday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Since every concert is different, the thrill ride we were on will undoubtedly be slightly different, too. But the spirit will remain. And we will finish Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony. Once more with feeling!

Utah Philharmonia Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot: Thursday, November 5. 7:30 p.m.

FREE ADMISSION!

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat