How does a concert season come together?

A “season” for performing arts organizations is a lot like a school year — it starts September-ish and ends June-ish. Our season planning typically starts in the spring, when our music director proposes a season theme (which ties the programs together), and some specific repertoire selections to be voted on by the orchestra’s members and our audience. The tentative plans (and associated logistics and budget) get reviewed during a meeting of the orchestra’s Board of Directors during the summer. We usually try out some of the repertoire during our Summer Reading Sessions. By the end of the summer, the season’s plans are finalized and communicated.

The fluid conditions of this pandemic have disrupted that process pretty significantly. Here’s a slightly edited email interview with our music director, Sandra Ragusa.

What did you consider when you put together the slate of possible selections for this season?

Sandra: There are lots of things that come to light when putting together a concert season. First, the composers’ stories are important to me. They inform us not only about what they were doing and thinking, but also they help us understand their world at the time they were working on these pieces. Next come key signature relationships, then contrasting styles. If the pieces of music all sound similar, it would make for a boring concert. If the pieces are too different, then the concert sounds like we are jumping around with no sense of continuity as an orchestra.

What were you thinking about when you chose a theme for this season?

Sandra: This season’s theme was exceptionally difficult. I wanted to connect our music with what we’ve been through for the past two years yet bring all of us a sense of hope. As an orchestra, we are beginning anew and I wanted to find pieces that had new beginnings to their history.  

  • Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, written when he was just 18 years old, was put away after one performance for fifty years.
  • Mozart’s Symphony No. 26 was one of four symphonies written in 1773 when Mozart was 17 years old and was never published in his lifetime. Mozart’s symphony represented a style that was new to the time because it has only in three movements and is full of suspense with a romantic zest.
  • Alton Augustus Adams (composer of the Governor’s Own March) was the first black bandmaster of the United States Navy. A member of our orchestra has temporarily stored some of Adams’ archives, provoking an interest in his works. When the United States purchased the Virgin Islands at the onset of WWI, this gave his band on St. Thomas a new beginning — music from the Virgin Islands and Adams were immediately put in a spotlight and Adams assumed several music leadership positions. 
  • Price’s Symphony No. 3 was the result of Florence Price being given a commission by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA gave new beginnings to artists all over the United States in a big push to employ unemployed artists as a reaction to the Great Depression and the beginnings of WWII.
  • Walker’s Sinfonia No. 3 is another piece of American music. George Walker saw a new beginning when he won a 1996 Pulitzer Prize after toiling as a composer for over 60 years. 

This somewhat hidden information about the composers, their music, and what was happening in the world that they lived in always helps to bring together a concert season.

What were you thinking about when you put together your selections for our next set (concert #2)?

Sandra: I wanted to construct a concert that brought together composers’ ideas about their music — finding new ideas. All four composers on the concert brought composition at the time to new heights.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart signals the romantic era a full 100 years in advance with thought provoking harmonies throughout and the soaring melodies in the second movement of his 26th symphony.

In Alton Augustus Adams’ Governor’s Own March, he uses the idea of energetic themes from Sousa with his own twist, a feeling of courage stemming from being a black composer/conductor in a white musical world.

Kevin Puts, a composer on the Peabody Institute’s faculty, brings a fresh, lyrical sense to the brass choir in an uplifting elegy.

Finally, Florence Price was one of the first composers to incorporate African American idioms into a classical symphony. Price takes risks with her Symphony No. 3 with asymmetries, more dissonances, and a playfulness at a level that had not really been heard in the classical symphony.

All of these compositional ideas make for a great program both for the musicians in the orchestra and the audience. It is important for me to see musicians and concert goers enjoying music and experiencing something fresh and new.