Programming a Classical Season

by Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 7

My mandate from the beginning was clear and concise: Town Music’s programming should reflect my musical interests. A live iPod playlist, if you will. Well, my interests are broad and evolving! What can I say?

Nine seasons in, I’ve seen the development of an audience that comes for an experience. We’re lucky, in this sense, to be tied to an organization like Town Hall Seattle, which fosters community discussion and debate around issues important to Seattle. This spirit of engagement naturally flows over into the music series, and has prompted me to explore musical connections that might not be obvious based on traditional metrics. When an audience member leaves one of the Town Music concerts, I want them to have had an experience that generates curiosity and excitement. Hopefully, they will have been surprised at some point, whether by unknown sounds or their own reaction to something of which they previously had a different expectation.

But how to do this without having a total mishmash of unrelated projects? There are several things which remain consistent from season to season:

Every season includes music by J.S. Bach, whether it’s a concert of Bach or mixed in other programs. I love Bach, and find it an ideal anchor for explorations of many kinds of music. In past seasons, Bach has been played by Baroque specialists like Catharina Meints and paired with other music, like Karen Gomyo’s evening of Bach and Piazzolla. This season, Johnny Gandelsman plays all six Sonatas and Partitas. Yesss…

Every season ends with a commission. A musical series which seeks legitimacy must, in my mind, be a part of the continuing tradition of creativity and innovation which is classical music. This means commissioning and/or performing new works. End of story!

Every season has at least one concert where I perform. My relationship with Town Hall Seattle began with a solo performance, before I was asked to join the team as an Artistic Director. My identity is very much wrapped up in performance, and I learn so much from sharing the stage time and time again in front of an audience that I know, and that knows me.

So how to bring it all together? Several of my past seasons have had an arc, or a particular focus. The season of extra-musical influence comes to mind, where concerts had textual, dance, or other non-musical influence. Or the season where each concert had a different number of players. However, I find that these ideas work best when they develop naturally during the planning process. I like to start with one or two intriguing performers or programs, and then find the connections (obvious or not, at this point) to at least one other idea that’s been on my mind. From there, I might consciously begin to search for other performances that will enhance or contrast the developing theme.

My best example of this process is a season from several years ago, where each concert featured a composer/performer playing their own work and works that had inspired them. I had already decided on a couple of the performers when I realized the commonality: they were also composers. It wasn’t hard to find other people I’d already wanted on the series who also composed. In the end, we had Derek Bermel, So Percussion, the JACK Quartet, Gabriela Lena Frank, and to bring it all back home to Seattle, players from the Seattle Symphony who also compose.

Which leads me to the last piece of the puzzle: maintaining a connection and sensitivity to the community I serve with this series so I can properly inhabit my role as provocateur. Some of that comes from talking regularly with friends and colleagues in Seattle, during my many (many!) trips there or over the phone and email. I also like to find special occasions to highlight local musicians, whether in an all-cello ensemble or the composer/performer concert. One of the more gratifying endeavors was in June, where we managed to pull Seattle Youth Symphony players, alumni, and mentors from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras together to share the stage in a program of inspiring string ensemble music.

And, my most frequent activity as an Artistic Director: listening. Hours are spent scouring the internet for music and musicians I haven’t heard. Following trails of interesting ideas to see where they originate. Going to concerts when I can (usually at home in NYC) and asking colleagues what’s new and what’s great as I travel around the country.

In the end, I’m on the hook for the programming decisions, and I take this job very seriously. This is a never-ending path of discovery that has taken me far beyond simply programming my own recitals, and it has had a profound impact on how I see my artistic voice developing. Sharing is such an important part of being human, and as an artist I see opportunities to improve that quality in myself, and they are certainly not limited to the concert stage. I love the the feeling of giving someone else a chance to share their voice with an audience and enjoy the dialogue this beautiful interaction spawns.

Take a look at this upcoming Town Music Season and past concerts.

Music I’m listening to:
Ieyoka: “Say Yes Evolved”
Bela Fleck: “Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn”
Xenakis: Complete String Quartets (JACK Quartet)

One thought on “Programming a Classical Season

  1. Pingback: LIVE BROADCAST: Johnny Gandelsman, violin | SECOND INVERSION

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