Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Orchestra programming: some are just better at it than others

After spending some time chatting on Tim Mangan’s blog about how the Pacific Symphony chose to put together its 2011-2012 season, I was reminded of a little contest that Sam Bergman and Sarah Hicks of the Minnesota Orchestra decided to hold a couple of years ago.  The concept, in short, was to “put yourself in the shoes of the music director” to program five separate orchestral concert programs with the following stipulations:

  • Be innovative and forward thinking, but keep in mind that you actually have to sell tickets to the concerts
  • The five concerts should preferably not have an overarching theme
  • No more than one concert should adhere to the traditional “Overture-Concerto-Intermission-Symphony” (OCIS) format
  • Don’t piss off your musicians by your programming, or as they said:  “Exhibit A:  ask 100 orchestra musicians what they think about playing film scores instead of Beethoven”

They made a number of positive references to Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil, and given my affinity with what the local band had been doing, I figured I’d toss my hat in the ring.  After mulling a variety of options and making efforts to keep in mind the rules above, I submitted my entry along with 20 other people, and . . .

I won.

Here was my winning entry:

Program 1
Handel: Water Music in D, HWV 349
Handel: “Let the Bright Seraphim” (Air from “Samson”, HWV 57)
Stravinsky: “No word from Tom. . . .” (Recitative, air, recitative, and cabelleta from “The Rake’s Progress”)
Handel: “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” (Air from “Messiah”)
Handel: “Rejoice” (Air from “Messiah”)
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements

Program summary: Juxtoposing well known Handel pieces with neo-classical Stravinsky. In addition, all the soprano arias & airs are sung in English. And I’ll take any excuse to get to listen to Manny Laureano play “Let the Bright Seraphim.”

Program 2
Adams: Naïve & Sentimental Music
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Debussy: Iberia, from Images pour orchestre (or alternately . . . Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol)

Program summary: The Rodrigo concerto serves as the anchor. Before it, the 2nd movement of the Adams includes a very prominent guitar solo, thereby tying it back to the Rodrigo. More importantly, I think the Adams piece is not only one of his most accessible, it is one of his best. I’d prefer to end it with the Debussy, but in case that scares the box office, the Rimsky should be more user friendly. The two pieces after intermission share the Spanish theme. This kind of puts the OCIS design on it’s head, and I think that SICO is NOT psycho . . . (sorry, couldn’t resist the obvious pun)

Program 3
Mozart: Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major (“Eine kleine Nachtmusik”), K. 525
Barber: Adagio, from String Quartet in B minor (transcribed for string orchestra)
Herrmann: Suite for Strings, from “Psycho”
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 77 (alternately . . . Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77)

Program summary: the whole first half is devoted exclusively to strings. The Mozart is the biggest crowd draw, and is paired with the Barber (another well known piece) and the Herrmann which people know, but not in the concert hall context. After all the string music, end with a concerto highlighting the violin; the Shosty is not exactly new, but it is a great piece and is certainly more challenging to the typical audience than Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky. Plus the Shosty maintains and builds upon the tension that started with the Barber and flows on through the Herrmann, and it starts with an extended passage limited to the strings and soloist. That said, if it’s too scary, substitute with the Brahms since it is similar in scale/length.

Program 4
Debussy: Preludes for piano (orch: Colin Matthews)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto in D (transcribed from Violin Concerto), Op. 61
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

Program summary: This is the lone OCIS concert; my take on the theme is to make all the programs transcriptions. The Debussy transcription is new, the concerto is Beethoven with a twist, and the finale is a well-known warhorse.

Program 5
Lutoslawski: Paganini Variations for Piano & Orchestra
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 4
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Program summary: Probably the most challenging of the five programs, but still reasonable. The Rachmaninoff gives you the big draw, with the Lutoslawski as the foil. I think the music pairs very well. Even though the Lutoslawski isn’t melodic in the traditional sense, it has a clear structure so it is fairly easy to follow, with a lot going on throughout and eventually offering up the de riguer big ending.

To the victor go the spoils

As the winner, I had the choice between four tickets to a Minnesota Orchestra concert or a copy of their SACD recording of all nine Beethoven symphonies.  I tried really hard to schedule a business trip to the Twin Cities to see the orchestra play — especially considering they had a performance of Rite of Spring lined up — but, alas, it was not to be; however, the Beethoven discs have proven to be a nice alternate prize.

Does anybody else have their own ideas?  How would you program your own five concerts?  Please feel free to share . . .

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