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Thread: Who choses an orchestra's programme?

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    Default Who choses an orchestra's programme?

    Hi everyone!

    Who decides what music a symphonic orchestra will play: the conductor alone? Someone else? Or does he have an adviser for that?

    And if I may ask: how do you believe he decides? Family relationship with the composer? Banknote in the score? Lobbying by an editor, a composer's agent? Or just plain artistic taste?

    (I hope I didn't open a too passionate discussion...)

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    Every orchestra has a different decision making routine. The usual route is the Music Director puts together a program and submits it to the Board for approval or discussion (that's when it can really get heated!). In some groups, the MD is the sole decision maker and there's no input from anyone else - and this can cause trouble too. Putting on big Mahler symphonies is expensive and can really challenge budgets.

    Sometimes the MD gets ideas or requests from major benefactors - you know the old saying, "he who pays the piper names the tune". Well, it's very much real in the music world.

    Composers, publishers do send scores to orchestras and conductors but they have little sway - unless a hefty check is attached.

    I like the way two groups I play with handle it: one polls the orchestra members each year and asks us to list three things we'd like to play. The results are tabulated and provided as a reference only to the MD. But he's very good at playing some of our requests. In the other we have a music committee which works with the MD to program the season. We usually meet five or six times, alcohol in abundance, and hammer things out.

    In major orchestras even the dictators like Reiner, Szell had to compromise. The interference of the board in New York probably drove Mahler to an early grave.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthalpy View Post
    Who decides what music a symphonic orchestra will play: the conductor alone? Someone else? Or does he have an adviser for that?
    And if I may ask: how do you believe he decides? Family relationship with the composer? Banknote in the score? Lobbying by an editor, a composer's agent? Or just plain artistic taste?
    This is a very good topic....Programming is huge, it is crucial to an orchestra's success...mbhaub has outlined the usual methods of programming and some common processes.....Generally, this is the Music Director's realm - he/she will determine the overall programming....however, since it is an absolutely crucial part of the whole, other influences will exert their own force...ultimately, the Board of Directors has to approve it, since they need to raise the $$.

    Programming must be attractive to audiences, be affordable to present within the orchestra's budget, be challenging for the orchestra, and not get stuck in the rut of the same old warhorses, time after time. Believe me, there are plenty of people who would be entirely satisfied of the orchestra simply played Tchaik 4 and 5, Rach 2, some Brahms, some Beethoven, endlessly, in eternal repetition...this however, kills the orchestra....Programming must include new works, unfamiliar works that are deserving of performance....
    Things can and do get very heated.....but ultimately, it is the Music director's responsibility....

    budget-wise - grouping is often employed - IOW - works that include a large orchestra, many extra instruments will be grouped together on one program...a "chamber" sized program may also be presented - smaller orchestras, "classical repertiore - Haydn, Mozart, etc - where some instrument families are reduced or excluded [brass, lower bras, percussion]
    This saves money on personnel, if done skillfully....

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    "If done skillfully" is a real trap for some unthinking conductors. Recently I went through this process with a relatively new MD who repeatedly programmed a short overture that required full brass, piccolo, contra, several percussionists and harp - then the rest of the concert a romantic piano concerto and close with a Mozart symphony. Made no sense - so you have all these extras coming to rehearsals and a concert to play for five minutes? No thanks. He programmed several concerts the same way. What was worse is the programming consisted entirely of dead white Europeans and the entire season could have been played in 1892. Nothing modern, just rehashing the same old worn out warhorses. There was a lot of tension at the next board meeting. Unfortunately he was probably right in that the audience would love the season. The orchestra wouldn't. It's that balance that really is important.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mbhaub View Post
    Recently I went through this process with a relatively new MD who repeatedly programmed a short overture that required full brass, piccolo, contra, several percussionists and harp - then the rest of the concert a romantic piano concerto and close with a Mozart symphony. Made no sense - so you have all these extras coming to rehearsals and a concert to play for five minutes?
    Exactly what I'm talking about....really poor use of $$ resources.

    What was worse is the programming consisted entirely of dead white Europeans and the entire season could have been played in 1892. Nothing modern, just rehashing the same old worn out warhorses.
    That kills the orchestra - the old grayhairs may love it, but the quality and enthusiasm go right down the crapper...

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    I've been involved with amateur and semi-professional live theatre for over 5 decades now, and it's similar problem there, except that the actors/performer are volunteers.

    The Board of Directors gets together and decides which shows the theatre will present for the next season. They have to program a season that will entice their audience to buy season tickets, but at the same time be edgy enough to attract a talent pool (actors, directors, support staff of choreographers, musical directors, designers) that will want to donate their time for 6 to 8 weeks of rehearsals and three to six weeks of performances.

    Note that the audiences' average age is, ahem, "senior", and they want to see the old warhorses: The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Godspell, The Music Man, Crazy for You, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes, Bye Bye Birdie, Once Upon a Mattress. If it's Rogers & Hammerstein, the audiences want to see it.

    But the actors don't want to spend that much time with these old mildewed shows; they want to be in fun, edgy shows like Avenue Q, Urinetown, Spring Awakening.

    Ticket sales are very important, but when you put on original shows, unknown shows or 'edgy' and avant garde shows, you may be hastening your own theatre's demise. Theatres struggle to make ends meet; they have expenses . . . often their rent is high, and royalties on popular shows are quite high. If you hire pit musicians, expect that to be a large budget expense.

    Theatres have a neat trick to get audiences in the theatre, though . . . you put on a show that requires lots of children, like Annie or Oliver, and your audience of friends, parents, grandparents is guaranteed.
    Last edited by pianozach; May-14-2020 at 01:09.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    [...] Theatres have a neat trick to get audiences in the theatre, though . . . you put on a show that requires lots of children, like Annie or Oliver, and your audience of friends, parents, grandparents is guaranteed.
    Same for pupil's concerts. You're sure to get the parents, brothers, sisters, plus some variable grand-parents and friends.

    And since the same professor lets play the same pieces every time, just shifting the pupils one difficulty degree farther, the same public hears the same pieces every time. Oh, Martin plays Mendelssohn now? Nice progress!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthalpy View Post
    Same for pupil's concerts. You're sure to get the parents, brothers, sisters, plus some variable grand-parents and friends.

    And since the same professor lets play the same pieces every time, just shifting the pupils one difficulty degree farther, the same public hears the same pieces every time. Oh, Martin plays Mendelssohn now? Nice progress!
    As I'm now heavily involved as a 'music specialist' in a high school choir, I've noticed that the choir director rotates the same pieces every four years or so . . . .

    All you need is three concerts a year for four years . . . and . . . repeat. 95% of your audience is parents and students that have never heard this before . . . only parents with kids in grades more than 4 years apart might notice . . .

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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    I've been involved with amateur and semi-professional live theatre for over 5 decades now, and it's similar problem there, except that the actors/performer are volunteers.

    The Board of Directors gets together and decides which shows the theatre will present for the next season. They have to program a season that will entice their audience to buy season tickets, but at the same time be edgy enough to attract a talent pool (actors, directors, support staff of choreographers, musical directors, designers) that will want to donate their time for 6 to 8 weeks of rehearsals and three to six weeks of performances.

    Note that the audiences' average age is, ahem, "senior", and they want to see the old warhorses: The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Godspell, The Music Man, Crazy for You, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes, Bye Bye Birdie, Once Upon a Mattress. If it's Rogers & Hammerstein, the audiences want to see it.

    But the actors don't want to spend that much time with these old mildewed shows; they want to be in fun, edgy shows like Avenue Q, Urinetown, Spring Awakening.

    Ticket sales are very important, but when you put on original shows, unknown shows or 'edgy' and avant garde shows, you may be hastening your own theatre's demise. Theatres struggle to make ends meet; they have expenses . . . often their rent is high, and royalties on popular shows are quite high. If you hire pit musicians, expect that to be a large budget expense.

    Theatres have a neat trick to get audiences in the theatre, though . . . you put on a show that requires lots of children, like Annie or Oliver, and your audience of friends, parents, grandparents is guaranteed.
    I have a son who is a set designer and we follow his shows up and down the East Coast -- and I am constantly amazed by the average age of the audience (we're no spring chickens either). If there were not always an aging cohort prepared to step in to replace the dying, I think theatre would have long since gone extinct. :-) Just as ballet companies survive by their Christmastime "Nutcracker" productions, regional theatre pays the bills with musicals and seasonal "Christmas Carol" productions.

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    Top orchestras in the US usually have one individual with maybe an assistant or two who are in charge of planning programming for any given season along with the music director . I can't recall the exact title of this position off hand, but it's an important one .
    I don't think the board of directors can do all of this planning , because their main job is with finance and drumming up funding from rich people etc . I'm sure the board has some say in this matter ,
    though .
    Programming an orchestral season is one of the most thankless jobs in classical music . You're damed if you do an damned if you don't . No matter what the music director and administration choose, someone will be PO'd .
    Many hidebound subscribers hate it when an orchestra plays anything by a living or recently deceased composer, even one with a conservative style . Music critics from the local newspaper whose job it is to review the concerts will often blast the orchestra for not performing enough new or recent music .
    Or complain there isn't enough music by female composers or non-western ones , or African-Americans . It's a no win situation .

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    Quote Originally Posted by superhorn View Post
    Top orchestras in the US usually have one individual with maybe an assistant or two who are in charge of planning programming for any given season along with the music director . I can't recall the exact title of this position off hand, but it's an important one .
    I don't think the board of directors can do all of this planning , because their main job is with finance and drumming up funding from rich people etc . I'm sure the board has some say in this matter ,
    though .
    Programming an orchestral season is one of the most thankless jobs in classical music . You're damed if you do an damned if you don't . No matter what the music director and administration choose, someone will be PO'd .
    Many hidebound subscribers hate it when an orchestra plays anything by a living or recently deceased composer, even one with a conservative style . Music critics from the local newspaper whose job it is to review the concerts will often blast the orchestra for not performing enough new or recent music .
    Or complain there isn't enough music by female composers or non-western ones , or African-Americans . It's a no win situation .
    Yep.

    Rock bands with a deep suitcase of recorded treasures also have the same problem.

    The band Yes comes to mind . . . They must play Roundabout and Owner of a Lonely Heart every damned performance, and I'm sure they're tired of it. Many fan favorites are long, and it doesn't take a very long setlist to fill the time. And depending on who's in the band at any given time, there are songs certain band members will veto, as they were on albums that they weren't on.

    Eventually they started playing entire albums on tour, much to the delight of their fans.

    But for Orchestras? I don't know . . . start and end with warhorses, and put the tasty stuff in the middle of the program?

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