How do I put together a program?

I know it’s been an awfully long the since I’ve blogged….

One of the HSO’s patrons wrote in to the Comments line the following:

I would surely appreciate your thoughts on how and why the individual programs are selected - what causes you to select a particular composer, combine that composer with one or two others and how and why you feel the specific pieces are compatible musically. Many thanks for enriching my life.

I couldn’t resist leaving in the last line. Sentiments like that mean a lot to me.

So, why did I put together Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #1, and Prokofiev’s Symphony #5?

The short answer is that the combination felt right. But the process is more involved.

Generally, when I’m putting programs together, I begin with one piece around which I want to build the program. Usually it is the symphony, or other large work (tone poem, large orchestral suite, etc.) on the second half of the program. Sometimes it’s the concerto, but much less frequently. In this case, it was Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. We had last performed it in 2001. It is, in my opinion (and many other’s as well), one of the greatest 20th Century symphonic works. It is also an audience dazzler, and perfect for an opening night. It is a joyful, yet serious (and at times terrifying) piece, extolling the spirit of mankind. It uses fairly large forces, personnel-wise, so it left me a wide range of repertoire with which to pair it, without adding extra expense.

Despite it’s undeniable greatness, Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony is not a top 10 seller, along the lines of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the Mozart Requiem. So I wanted to pair it with 1) something very familiar and beloved, and 2) something with marketing clout.

Rachmaninoff is a “household name” kind of composer. His two most familiar and popular works are the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, but we have recently performed both. I also feel that the 1st Concerto is a wonderful and under-performed work. I liked the pairing with Prokofiev - although they were both Post-Romantic Russian composers, Rachmaninoff was much more Romantic, and Prokofiev more Post. Also, we had had Daria Rabotkina the season before last, and I had loved the collaboration, so having her back was a no-brainer.

As for the Liszt… well, it’s a mad, fun romp through the fields of Hungary. The melodies are part of popular culture (what with Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the like). And yet, it is a terrific piece. Perfect to open a season in celebratory fashion.

So, that was my process. In retrospect, I think it worked out splendidly, and the orchestra and Daria played wonderfully.

If you’ve read this and enjoyed it, please let me know with a comment. One of the frustrations with blogging is you never really know if you are being read, or if you are a tree falling in the forest with no one around….
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