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June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

Selecting pieces for the MFSO to play is a great joy, serious responsibility, large task and a balancing act! Initially, one would think – “What fun – you get to pick all the pieces the orchestra plays and the audiences get to listen to!!!”  Well, that’s the romantic side of the coin, and there is truth to that. Yet, I hope this article opens up other aspects to this part of the job of the Music Director.

Let me begin with a story.

Picture of violin

As a young conductor, I was participating in several workshops to give conductors more experience and contact with senior conductors. A special workshop with the American Symphony Orchestra League featured Daniel Barenboim and Maurice Abravanel. One of the workshops was on the topic of programming music for concerts. An august panel of senior conductors offered a presentation of the many creative and successful ways to program music for a given concert as well as for an entire season. I listened intently to gain all the insight I could. This was creativity on steroids, with one conductor trying to out-do the other: “I did an entire concert of Bach but paired the father’s works [Johann] with the son’s works [Johann Christian and Carl Phillip Emanuel …].” “I did an entire concert of Bach but paired contemporary performances with ‘period’ performances [playing the music on instruments of that era and with that unique pitch standard…].”  “I paired Bach with Shostakovich [Baroque with 20th c]!” “I had a concert of Bach, Beethoven Brahms [the 3 B’s – a programming favorite of conductors]”.  I paired Bach with Gounod and Dvorak [German, French and Czech]”. And so it went on and on, with some of the most odd pairings imaginable. You are probably thinking that this sounds a little like food and wine: combining certain appetizers with pasta dishes, followed by an entrée and dessert, all with various combinations of wines. IT IS!

Now it is time for questions and answers.

 Frustrated, having heard that (essentially) “anything” can be paired with “anything”, I raised my hand and asked the odd question: “It sounds like most anything can go with most anything. So, is there a WRONG way to program???” There was some silence. They looked at each other, and finally one said (correctly) “I guess, I simply would not program any pieces in the same key/tonality, one after the other.” [For instance, the overture in D major and then a concerto in D major and a symphony in D major.]  Apart from that, most anything goes!

Now to the MFSO-Primary considerations: (not in order)

1) avoid pieces we have recently played; 2) consider the “season” theme; 3) consider the difficulty level (so it is not too hard for the orchestra); 4) consider the scoring (that we have enough instruments to cover all the parts); 5) consider the audience appeal; 6) consider the specific kind of concert (classical, holiday, pops, children…); 7) consider the KEY!!!; 8) consider the tempo/mood/style/era; 9) consider the “orchestra member” (musicians’) appeal (will the musicians like it?); 10) consider the value for the orchestra members to increase their musical learning; 11) consider the repertoire options of the soloist; 12) consider repertoire suggestions received from orchestra members (and sometimes from audience members); 13) consider if we own the piece, or if we need to borrow or rent it or purchase it – and if rental/purchase is within our budget); 14) consider what other local orchestras are programming (if that’s possible) so as not to duplicate major works locally performed at the same time. And last but not least, consider if the conductor would like to conduct the piece (?!?! 😊 ). 

Orchestra picture

I hope you get a sense that this is both a fun, yet challenging tasks for all conductors. We want so much to give our musicians GREAT musical experiences and to give our audiences the chance to hear inspired compositions with inspired performances. There is SO much great music and so few concerts. You probably could tell that I could do an entire article on any one of the many points of consideration when planning a season. But I spared you that!

Please know that very much planning, organization and dreaming goes into the selection of every single piece of music at a concert you attend. We musicians want the audience to fall in love with the music we so love. We are grateful that you patronize our orchestra and other performing organizations so that artists can share with you their talents and insights.

And… if you DO have requests, please let me know. I can’t fulfill all, but I am happy to entertain all suggestions!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.