Ask Jason

June 22, 2020

Welcome back! Thanks for joining us. We’ve had a couple of questions about how we pick the pieces that we do, who picks the pieces, and since last week’s “Ask Jason,” we had a question about how we find some of the newer, unfamiliar pieces that we perform.

All great questions. Ordinarily we would have announced our entire season of Classical, Pops, Young People’s, and Chamber concerts in May, but since we can’t do that because of the circumstances, I thought it would be fun to share with you the programs that we were likely to have done had there not been a big plague. Then you’ll see the process of how we put the season together.

Here are some things to know. First, we’re an orchestra that does four classical programs per year which amounts to between ten to fifteen different pieces per season. We want the audience in Howard County to hear the same music you would hear if you were going to the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or the Berlin Philharmonic. But since they’re doing 30 to 50 programs a year and we’re doing four, ours have to be all about balance.

Now one of our biggest responsibilities is to be sort of like the National Gallery of Art: We want to put on display those big, great masterpieces, the sort of pieces I was talking about last time, pieces that are so great they’ve stood the test of time. When we do these pieces from “the canon” we have to think three years at a time so that we’re balancing those composers and historic pieces over the course of then twelve concerts in three years. That way we find a good balance over time. That means we’re not doing Beethoven 5 every three or four years; we’re doing Beethoven 5 every eight to twelve years.

Because of that we are essentially a “masterpiece-only” orchestra. If I had forty weeks to program and you were choosing four concerts out of forty on offer, as opposed to four concerts out of four, I would probably have a lot more 18th- and 19th-century music that’s a little bit off the beaten path… less familiar Tchaikovsky, for example, as opposed to the “Pathétique” Symphony. But because we have fewer programs, we go for the top of the top, the A-List stuff. If you want to hear the not-quite-as-great-but-still-really-good, it’s all on many of our larger peer’s programs (and YouTube), of course!

Another thing that is very important is that the Columbia Orchestra is a volunteer orchestra. If I’m in the Chicago Symphony and I’m the bass clarinet player, or the bass drum player, one of the instruments that just isn’t included in every piece, of course I’m there to be a great musician and to play and I want to play as much as possible but I’m going to get a salary – this is how I’m supporting my family.

If I’m in a volunteer orchestra like Columbia, I’m there to play and that’s what I’m getting out of the experience. I’m there to play for the community, so for us it is very much like Little League: everybody plays. I want to include as many musicians as possible so they keep their skills up and so they can be a part of it. If we do a Beethoven Symphony it’s going to use thirty fewer people than if we do Rite of Spring or a Mahler Symphony so I have to be sure to be able to include as many musicians as possible and that’s really a big part of our programming.

Last thing is, while we try to do much of the same repertoire that you’d hear in New York, this is not New York. Our audience is here in Howard County and a lot of them know tons about classical music and have tons of recordings, but we know from our surveys a lot of our audience are getting much of their classical music mostly from us and are learning about pieces through what they hear on our concerts.

So I have to make sure they buy tickets and come and hear that stuff. That means finding something familiar and attractive that will make people leave their house to hear the music live, but not too familiar which doesn’t inspire people to attend either.

So enough talk. Let’s look at the “programs that might have been.” Here are four programs.

Antonín Dvořák: Carnival Overture
Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No 7

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol
Reena Esmail: My Sister’s Voice

    YOU CHOOSE (list not settled yet):
    Maurice Ravel: La Valse
    Jean Sibelius: Finlandia
    Vaughan-Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
    Ernest Bloch: “Funeral Procession”
    Australian woman whose name I forget
Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome

Georges Bizet: Highlights from Carmen
James Lee III: Niiji Memories
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Zhou Long: Rhyme of Taigu
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Jessie Montgomery: Strum
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

I should say that this version was done sort of in March and April when we knew we were going to be postponing our March and May classical concerts, so some of the May concert music has been moved into these programs, when we still thought we’d be able to do four concerts. Barring some unforeseen circumstances and a miracle, we will probably not be doing these four concerts like this in our usual way of doing them—October, December, February, May—but I think you are going to see all of this music at some time and hopefully much sooner rather than later.

So if you are thinking about those historically important pieces, we have both the traditional ones from the classical and romantic period as well as twentieth century classics. On the first concert, Beethoven Symphony 7, that uses fewer of our musicians so if you look at the next one, Respighi’s Pines of Rome uses a ton of them. Both pieces played about ten years ago. Brahms Symphony 4, we haven’t done that in ten years. It’s a marvelous piece that uses a large part of the orchestra, but not a lot of the percussion and less low brass and harp, so you see those people in Appalachian Spring, which is a great 20th-century masterpiece. And of course there are several other great pieces from “the canon:” Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, Capriccio Espagnol, Carmen, which was from last season and was canceled, and the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

The newer pieces, this year in particular… Well there’s a phenomenon with American orchestras. They get in this rut of doing an opener for 5-10 minutes, a concerto for 20-30 minutes, and then a symphony for 40-50 minutes. They want to do some new music, but maybe they only want to do a little bit. So they keep commissioning these 5-10-minute flashy concert openers. That’s a ton of what composers end up getting to write because that’s what orchestras will play, but we want to do a little bit more. So you’ll see this year several of the concertos are new pieces, and they’re also pieces that are very easy to grasp onto.

Tales of Hemingway, from the first concert, is a cello concerto. It’s a new piece and Michael Daugherty’s music is very easy to get a lot of on first hearing. In fact, this is a piece that won the Grammy for piece of the year and recording of the year. It has the benefit of the Hemingway stories: each of its four movements are inspired by different Hemingway stories, so it gives you an “in” to the emotional world of the piece.

On the next concert, Reena Esmail is a marvelous Indian-American composer. This particular piece features a Hindustani singer alongside a Western classical soprano singer. I think the idea of the piece is it represents literally her and her sister who is in India and how the two traditions come together musically. It is a beautiful piece.

On the next concert, James Lee III – if you haven’t listened to Chuphshah, the piece we had on our Backstage Peeks, go listen to it, it is a fantastic piece! James is here locally and teaching at Morgan State University and we commissioned him to write this piece. It is a flute concerto called Niiji Memories. The title refers to the various aspects about Native-American cultures and musical traditions. We’re really very excited about premiering this piece.

On the last concert there’s another piece that we had planned for this past May that we moved to next season, Zhou Long’s Rhyme of Taigu. “Taigu” is the Chinese word for “Taiko” which is Japanese drumming. This is a Chinese piece about Japanese drumming so it’s a very percussion-heavy piece for the guys who didn’t get to play on Brahms 4. It’s a great mix.

Looking back at Concert Two, this was going to be fun. You, the audience, were going to get to vote on which piece we were going to do. You’d go to YouTube, listen to each piece, then vote on which piece ended up on the concert. Obviously I did not finish up all of these because one of them is just “Australian woman whose name I forget” but it was a great piece you’ll hear someday!

So where do we find all those new pieces? Well, I get on my computer and I go to twenty or thirty different orchestra’s websites and I click on every concert and if there is a new piece that I don’t know, I write it down on a list. Then I go to that composer’s website or YouTube and I try to find that piece. Of course, you go through forty pieces to find one that’s right for your programs this year so it’s a needle in a haystack, but the needles that we found are really great! It’s definitely worth the time down the rabbit-hole: I think you’ll hear all of this music sometime coming up – hopefully sooner rather than later – and I think you will love it all. It is all great music that we are very excited about.

I hope that was interesting. I hope that answers some questions and I hope it gets you excited for the future. We will be back. We’ll be back as soon as possible, and until then, we hope you are enjoying some of our online content. Keep the questions coming, and we’ll look forward to seeing you again next time.

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