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“To Each His Own:” Repertoire Tendencies in Community Orchestras, Based on Two Massachusetts Orchestras

0 Michael Korn
Michael Korn Editor's Abstract

Michael Korn, an accomplished violinist, is also the music director of two community orchestras in the greater Boston suburbs, the Waltham Symphony and the Sharon Community Chamber Orchestra. This article explores the issue of repertoire selection as a strategy to stimulate steady orchestra membership and audience growth in the community orchestra. “Because community orchestras rely heavily on volunteer musicians, the choice of repertoire becomes an important tool, not only for developing audience but also for attracting and retaining present and potential orchestra members.” Michael includes extensive repertoire lists from both orchestras.

Ann Drinan

 When musicians are happy, concert venues are filling up, and layers of monetary “fat” stick to orchestra pockets, it is common to hear that such positive events happen in spite of a conductor’s baton. When it comes to musicians’ lack of enthusiasm, audiences disappearing, and budget shortcomings, however, it is usually all the conductor’s fault. Needless to say, different players share responsibilities for the successes and failures of a sophisticated orchestral organism, and various musical, social, geographical, economic, and demographic aspects enter the “roulette” of an orchestra’s artistic vitality and financial stability. Whereas numerous resources are enlisted by, and available to, professional entities to help them overcome the issues of financial cost, inadequate management, the aging of core membership and decline in attendance, community orchestras are often left out of researchers’ scope of interest and are rarely included in the examination of these issues. This article explores the issue of repertoire selection as a strategy to stimulate steady orchestra membership and audience growth in the community orchestra.

Community orchestras have a different structure than professional orchestras, which are governed by three entities: the Music Director, responsible for artistic matters such as repertoire and musician personnel issues, the Executive Director, responsible for administrative decisions, and the Board, in charge of fundraising and policy. The nature of the orchestra business is such that these three entities closely interact in a conflicting manner. The CEO of the orchestra shares major responsibility for the actions of both the Music Director and the Board, but can exercise little authority over the artistic and volunteer staff of the organization. The Board, comprised of volunteers, is in control of hiring or firing the executive and artistic leadership.

Accordingly in a professional orchestra, the interests of the various parties are clearly separated: the governing entities as the employer, musicians as the employees, and audience as the customers,.  In contrast, in a community orchestra, the musicians are the customers but are also the employers of the Music Director.  Thus, the Music Director, although still in charge of artistic decisions, is an employee managing his/her superiors.

Despite these obvious differences between professional and amateur-based orchestral ensembles, they share at least one exceptionally important characteristic: both carry the function of preserving classical orchestral music, a mission that usually is attributed to professional music institutions. Therefore, it is important to reflect on the nature of the community orchestra organization. Adopting a definition of community as a sense of “belongingness” based on the “quality or character of human relationships,” Kevin Olson identifies four basic parameters of “belongingness” to musical groups:

1)      music as a way of being connected to the world,

2)      music as a way of preserving cultural traditions,

3)      music as a way of emotional communication between people of different backgrounds, and

4)      music as a way to enhance the quality of life.

Although Olson points out the informal character of community music, I find that participation in community ensembles is, perhaps, a medium between formal and informal approaches in music education due to the lack of uniform membership and relatively loose organizational structure.

In determining the nature of a community choir, Cindy Bell specifies the following characteristics:

1)      all choir members are organized in some type of membership,

2)      all participants rehearse and perform in a public concert,

3)      the group performs chosen repertoire that is not necessarily limited to classical music and requires music-reading skills,

4)      although each participant sings, there are clear musical leaders in the group, and

5)      as a rule, choir members are not remunerated for their services.

Similar observations are made in a number of studies by Michael Kramer and Carol Lynn Shansky, which examine the nature, history, and social organization of community ensembles.

In Massachusetts, community music performing organizations are challenged to survive, just like other cultural and art institutions, including professional orchestras. In recent years several Massachusetts orchestras, including the Neponset Philharmonic Orchestra [now known as Symphony Nova, a training orchestra], the Newton Symphony Orchestra, the Thayer Symphony Orchestra [based in central Massachusetts], and the Waltham Symphony Orchestra, had to downgrade or cancel their seasons. Despite these difficulties, the community orchestra scene in Massachusetts remains an area of heightened orchestra activity, especially in the Greater Boston area. For example, the Cape Cod Community Orchestra convened for its first rehearsal in 2011, whereas the Cambridge-based Mercury Orchestra, established in 2008, solidified its reputation as a vibrant young ensemble by winning the 2010 American Prize for Orchestral Performance in the community orchestra division. There are dozens of community orchestras of different abilities, sizes, contingents, and affiliations that actively participate in a lifelong commitment to music in the state.

Because community orchestras rely heavily on volunteer musicians, the choice of repertoire becomes an important tool, not only for developing audience but also for attracting and retaining present and potential orchestra members. Studies from the professional orchestra world present ample information in this domain. Bradley Ryan Smith based his analysis of the repertoire practice on a sample of 18 conductors of 32 professional and university orchestras; his study indicates a certain degree of uniformity in conductors’ programming decisions despite the different purposes of the two orchestra types. (The goal of professional orchestra is to serve a broad community of listeners, while a collegiate orchestra exists to educate the students and prepare them for a professional career.) The conductors in the study identified the unifying principal of the artistic value of the performed music as a major factor in their repertoire decisions. Because of their different financial footings and audience base, university conductors usually feel little or no constraint in expanding school orchestra repertoire but they may be limited by the ability of their students. On the other hand, professional orchestra conductors are more concerned with educating the audience, marketing the concert, and various costs.

In respect to the standard repertoire, conductors tend to program music by Austrio-German (45% of performed pieces), Russian (25%), French (15%), and Eastern European (15%) composers, with an emphasis on Beethoven and music from the Romantic period. Among contemporary repertoire, the most heavily represented composers are American, with John Adams, John Corigliano, and William Bolcom at the top of the list. Depending on the type of orchestra, conductors separate the non-musical factors affecting their choices. University orchestra conductors identify faculty involvement, the musical level of the orchestra, and student-centered educational aims, while professional conductors note marketing and artistic costs, as well as the need to satisfy the demands of the audience with a diverse cultural and ethnic background.

These demographic and social concerns are also addressed in detail in the League of American Orchestras’ (LAO) Audience Motivation Research Project, Audience Demographic Research Review, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Orchestra Forum’s Elephant Task Force reports. The Audience Demographic Research Review recommends considering culturally-modified programming in order to appeal to the fast-growing Hispanic percentage of the audience. Interestingly, although most conductors deny or at least diminish the influence of non-musical factors in their repertoire strategy, they agree on the collaborative nature of making such decisions. In their article “Factors that Influence Programming Decisions of US Symphony Orchestras,” Jeffrey Pompe, Lawrence Tamburri, and Jonathan Munn analyzed the music programming tendencies of 64 American professional orchestras and found a similar distribution of the standard and contemporary repertoire. They cited the negative impact of performing non-standard repertoire on the size of the audience, and they also established a correlation between a higher proportion of unconventional music and financial security, as the bigger and better-funded orchestras lean towards innovative programming on a more regular basis. Furthermore, this study suggested that music directors do not have an overbearing influence on repertoire choices due to established preferences in the make-up of the orchestral repertoire.

In the realm of community ensembles, the nature of repertoire decisions is much less explored. David Miller, in his “Building Your Audience to Standing Room Only” recently presented at the Association of Concert Bands convention, offers the following parameters for programming community band concerts:

1)      the audience’s familiarity with the music,

2)      a variety of genres, styles and characters,

3)      the occasional introduction of unknown compositions,

4)      tailoring selections to audience demographics, and

5)      instituting traditions to conform to the audience’s expectations.

From the musicians’ perspective, Shansky notes in her 2009 study that professional musician-members in community ensembles look for opportunities to play major orchestral repertoire due to the scarcity of available work in professional orchestras. Furthermore, Shansky finds that amateur musician-members are attracted by an opportunity to practice and perform. The latter statement is also supported by the recent Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra survey, designed to capture the input of 24 orchestra members regarding the future of the orchestra.

The Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra (WPO) was founded in 1985 and confronted significant financial issues that nearly resulted in its dissolution in 2009. It is a non-audition, full symphony orchestra that performs three subscription concerts and at least one Holiday Pops show during the season. The orchestra is comprised of college students, amateur musicians with various degree of training and experience, and volunteer and paid professional musicians. Although almost every survey participant commented broadly on the issues related to the orchestra’s programming decisions, three members answered the question, “What musical pieces would you like to play?” in a more specific fashion. One musician expressed a desire to perform “more classical and baroque as well as romantic” repertoire; another musician leaned towards “works by contemporary composers, or feature more contemporary works,” and the third musician mentioned that “…it would be fun, periodically (not even once a year), to play a pops concert other than at Christmas. Real music, like Boston Pops.” Such an eclectic array of opinions in this non-auditioned orchestra accompanied by an extreme range of orchestra musician capabilities is a fair reflection of repertoire maneuvering that must be in place in order to satisfy membership demands, even before taking audience preferences into consideration.

Table 1.1. Selected standard repertoire in WPO programs (2010-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Alexander Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia full orch, no tuba
Edward Elgar Enigma Variations, op.36 full orch
Edvard Grieg Sigurd Jorsalfar, op 56, Three Orchestral Pieces full orch
Franz Joseph Haydn Symphony No.101, D major (Clock) with trombones and tuba added to the original instrumentation
Franz Schubert Symphony No.8, D.759, B minor (Unfinished) full orch, no tuba
Jean Sibelius Historic Scenes Overture, op 25 full orch
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5, op.64, E minor full orch

Table 1.2. Selected contemporary repertoire in WPO programs (2010-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Leonard Bernstein West Side Story, Selections (Mason) full orch
Aaron Copland Our Town full orch
Howard Frazin In the Forest of the Night standard chamber orch
Arturo Marquez Danzon No.2 full orch
Jose Pablo Moncayo Huapango full orch
Alexandr Mosolov Iron Foundry full orch
Gregory Smith Notions full orch

Table 1.3. Selected solo instruments repertoire in WPO programs (2010-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Ernest Chausson Poeme, op.25 full orch
Antonin Dvorak Cello Concerto, op.104, B minor full orch
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K.364, Eb Major only oboes, Fr Horns, str
Pablo Sarasate Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen,op. 25 full orch, no tuba
Robert Schumann Piano Concerto, op.54, A minor standard chamber orch
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, op.33 standard chamber orch, no trumpets and perc

Conversely, members of the Sharon Community Chamber Orchestra (SCCO), re-established ten years ago, steadily adhere to an “academic” repertoire. The SCCO performs two concerts a year and is similar to the WPO’s make-up, with the addition of some middle and high school students throughout each section of the orchestra. While the choice of music is somewhat dictated by the orchestra’s standard instrumentation, the desire to avoid “Pops” repertoire is specifically stated by many core members of the orchestra. In illustration, a program that included such 20th century “bon-bons” as Sibelius’ Valse Triste, Hindemith’s Suite französischer Tänze, and Falla’s Suite No.1 from El sombrero de tres picos was accepted by some orchestra members with noticeably less enthusiasm than the orchestra’s more traditionally-oriented programs.

Table 2.1. Standard repertoire inSCCO programs (2009-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No.1, op.21, C major standard  chamber orch
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No.8, op 93, F major standard  chamber orch
Ludwig van Beethoven Egmont Overture, op. 84 standard  chamber orch
(with 4 Fr Horns)
Antonin Dvorak Czech Suite standard  chamber orch
Pietro Mascagni Intermezzo, Cavalleria Rusticana standard chamber orch, no trumpets, perc
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No.31, K.297, D major (Paris) standard  chamber orch
Gioacchino Rossini Tancredi Overture standard  chamber orch
Franz Schubert Symphony No.8, D.759, B minor (Unfinished) standard  chamber orch, trombone added

Table 2.2. Contemporary repertoire in SCCO programs (2009-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Bela Bartok Romanian Folk Dances (theatre version) oboe, 2 trumpets, and perc are added to the chamber orchversion
Manuel de Falla El sombrero de tres picos, Suite No.1 standard  chamber orch
Howard Frazin In the Forest of the Night standard  chamber orch
Paul Hindemith Suite französischer Tänze no clarinets, French Horns, perc
Steven Karidoyanes Café Neon standard  chamber orch
Arvo Part Fratres wind octet and perc version
Sergei Prokofiev A Summer Day, op.65bis standard  chamber orch
Sergei Prokofiev Gavotte from Classical Symphony standard  chamber orch
Jean Sibelius Valse Triste no oboes, bassoons, trumpets

Table 2.3. Solo instruments repertoire in SCCO programs (2009-2012)

Composer Piece Instrumentation
Ludwig van Beethoven Romance No.1, op.40, G major no clarinets, trumpets, perc
Ludwig van Beethoven Romance No. 2, op.50, F major, no clarinets, trumpets, perc
Felix Mendelssohn Violin concerto, op.64, E minor standard  chamber orch
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Clarinet Concerto,K.622, A major no oboes, clarinets, trumpets, perc
Tomaso Antonio Vitali Chaconne, G minor str and cnt
Antonio Vivaldi Concerto for 3 Violins, RV 551, F major str only
Carl Maria von Weber Bassoon Concerto,op.75, F major no clarinets

It is important to note that repertoire selection in both orchestras occurs through a democratic discussion based on suggestions from the musicians, the orchestra repertoire committee, and the conductor. The musicians in both orchestras exhibit a preference for programs that involve all members of the ensemble participating. Furthermore, the musicians’ direct interaction in repertoire decisions is a contributing factor in improved membership in both orchestras. The size of the SCCO increased from 15 to 35 members over the span of four years while the WPO added about 10 members during the last three seasons. As it is clear from this limited research, the programming strategies in the community orchestra domain are vital for the survival of the ensemble. Yet significantly reduced forces participate in the discussion of the future of this oasis of classical music-making, when compared to the number of studies examining this issue in professional orchestras. Considering the rich variety of factors involved in sustaining the life of community orchestras, I call for further examination of the behavior of community-based ensembles regarding their choice of music repertoire.


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