Those who regularly attend Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts must frequently look at the program and wonder, "Why did they choose this piece?" or "Why don't they ever play that piece?"
A full season of orchestral programs must, of course, be planned as a totality. So how is repertoire chosen? Who makes the decisions - one person, a group of them, a committee? And what are the factors to be taken into account?
Talking with artistic director and chief conductor John DeMain reveals that some answers come out of simple realities. Of the eight concert programs this season, the traditional "Christmas Spectacular" in December is aimed at a broad public. Its program depends on the diverse participating local groups. For the seven remaining traditional concerts of classical works, a major factor is guest artists. In two of the concerts (February, March) the conductor is not DeMain himself, but guests (Anu Tali, Patrick Strub). To one extent or another, they will bring with them some of their own choices of selections.
Visiting soloists have even more to do with choices. It seems an established necessity that each program include a visiting soloist - occasionally more than one, and usually instrumentalists. This season features four pianists (Peter Serkin, Stephen Hough, Jonathan Biss, Philippe Bianconi), two violinists (Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Pinchas Zukerman) and two cellists (Ralph Kirschbaum, Amanda Forsyth). An organ soloist is the orchestra's resident, Samuel Hutchison. Aside from a singer for the Christmas concerts (Sylvia McNair), the only guest vocalist is a bass-baritone (Dean Peterson). Oh, and use of the MSO Chorus in at least one concert is standard. But it is the visiting instrumental soloists who bring with them their own selection choices.
Normally, there are three selections in a program. Out of the seven formal concerts, that would make for 22 or so items. Minus the soloists' choices, this season includes no more than 12 items. That's a very small number of slots for which so many possible selections are eligible.
Presumably, "the decider" would be the music director himself. DeMain admits to a personal bent for newer music, and he feels that the first half of the 20th century produced a particularly rich and not fully tapped body of work that "presents the orchestra in all its modern glory." At the same time, his policy is to avoid outright avant-gardism, to balance mainstream music against non-mainstream. He happily exploits musical birthdays or anniversaries as useful "honoring and celebrating," where appropriate.
On the other hand, DeMain regrets the limited opportunity to repeat works for better familiarization and assimilation. He worries, for example, that the orchestra had not programmed Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" for over 30 years before this season. He has dared two repetitions this season: the Saint-Saëns "Organ Symphony," heard only at the single opening concert at Overture Hall, not a subscription program; and the Mahler "Symphony No. 1," which he himself conducted back in 1974.
But, as the symphony's executive director, Rick Mackie, says, "Every program decision is a business decision." A symphony orchestra is not only an artistic operation but a business, too.
Survival depends upon selling. The Madison Symphony Orchestra offers weekends of "triples," three performances each program. In simple numbers, 6,000 tickets must be sold for each weekend. The orchestra has adjusted to current economic conditions, dropping from nine to the present eight weekends. While the number of subscribers has declined, retention has run about 80%. So far, the financial outlook remains encouraging.
There is just one key to retaining and even expanding audiences: "It's the music, stupid," as Mackie says he always reminds himself. "Programs are the best tool we have to survive." They are no place, Mackie says, "for pure art." Selection choices must favor "cornerstone works" that are "satisfyingly familiar." But not exclusively, he adds, for the goal is also to "find those jewels of the unfamiliar." Above all, extremes or frills are to be avoided.
"The audience is a dynamic body," Mackie says. Both he and DeMain agree that the MSO audience has evolved with its own special layering: a growing body of knowledgeable listeners, against those with less background and those who may just come out of curiosity or by recommendation of others. Thus, programming serves "to attract, satisfy and develop an audience."
DeMain adds that his programming goals are "to keep the orchestra challenged and interested, to offer enough to the less experienced listeners, but to keep repertoire new and fresh for the more experienced listeners." In the very development of that layered public, DeMain says ironically, "We are the victims of our own success."
The issue of guest soloists again arises. Some wonder why there must be one each program. Under Roland Johnson, MSO music director from 1961 to 1994, one concert each season dispensed with them, and players from the ranks were drawn upon for solo gigs. Dispensing with visitors would save money and would add some freedom to the format.
But the public clearly craves guests. "We are a star-system society," says DeMain, and there is no doubt that visitors with celebrity status will sell tickets. He adds that the backing by individual underwriters for their favored soloists cannot be ignored.
Booking soloists is tricky. The budget can manage high fees for starry personalities, but not all will linger for a brace of three concerts. Europeans, especially, make brisk tours and want to hit the bigger cities quickly, thereby ruling themselves out. American soloists are more flexible, DeMain says. Also, schedule issues are crucial. It can be a nerve-racking struggle to complete the program lineup by the end of spring for the following season.
There used to be a program committee, drawing upon both the orchestra's board and the players. Instead, there is now a marketing committee. Mackie says that the music director must ultimately be "the artistic personality" in the operations, but also "an organization personality." He speaks cordially of having a partnership with DeMain, who is candid, who listens and who is open to suggestions, whether or not he takes them.
For his part, DeMain agrees that programming a season requires "practical stuff." At the same time, he says, "there's dreaming," and he quests after "monumental events out there." The overriding commitment, he says, is "to creating an organization that the community can embrace and support as its own."
Beyond the head offices are the orchestra members themselves, who play the programs set for them. And repertoire relates to larger issues of the players' morale.
Now in his 20th season with the orchestra, Tyrone Greive is the concertmaster, with various responsibilities, including solo passages embedded in many scores. As a result, he has "some consultation" with DeMain as to repertoire. And, while noting the end of the old program committee, he feels that a conduit still exists between conductor and players, with DeMain even soliciting suggestions from them.
On the other hand, with over 35 years of perspective on the orchestra, going back deeply into the Johnson years, there is Marc Fink, principal oboist - and, like Greive, a faculty member at the UW School of Music. Fink agrees that repertoire ideas are submitted by the players at various times, suggestions made on an objective basis and not just to favor their roles or sections.
But Fink says that one previous canvass of players ended without any advice taken. There remains no formal way to convey player suggestions, and there is a need for "more official voice in repertoire choices," Fink believes. For now, the players "feel a little left out," and some frustration remains, though not resentment.
Most MSO players do not make their living doing this. Many are either faculty members or students at the UW. Greive considers that the university's cooperation with the MSO, always strong, is better than ever now, and far ahead of university-community relations he has seen in other cities.
Both Fink and Mackie are sensitive to the orchestra's recent decision to unionize. Mackie is comfortable with the contract negotiations now in progress, while Fink sees them as a step to fuller "professionalization" of the orchestra. Knowing that not all players might agree with him, Fink does believe that the orchestra has "terrific relations with the administration and the music director."
Even if he sometimes disagrees with the choices, Fink says that DeMain successfully balances box office realities with artistic imperatives like challenging the musicians and seeking new works. "Programming is not easy," Fink says, "and John's done a super job since his arrival."
From familiar to rare
The program for the Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts of Nov. 20-22 exemplifies the possible range from rarity to familiarity in repertoire choices. The opening work is "The Fountains of Rome," less heard than the more bombastic "Pines of Rome" in Respighi's "Roman Trilogy" of orchestral blockbusters. Of the three, it is the most subtly crafted. At the end comes Tchaikovsky's all-stops-out "Symphony No. 5," one of the most beloved Romantic warhorses in the repertoire.
In between, guest soloist Ralph Kirshbaum brings us Bloch's "Schelomo," his "Hebraic Rhapsody" for cello and orchestra, a powerful, surging work evoking the opulent and passionate world of biblical King Solomon - something not often heard in concerts these days. But, in addition, Kirshbaum will enterprisingly add a short delicacy, "Silent Woods," by Dvorák. The piece originated as just one of a set of Bohemian scenic pieces for piano four hands, but it was arranged by the composer himself, first for cello and piano, then for cello and orchestra. That little gem is the ultimate rarity this time.