Something good in South Dakota

This came to me last night, from Delta David Gier, music director of the South Dakota Symphony:

I am now coming to the close of a season of concerts centered around Pulitzer prize-winning composers. This is my first season as Music Director, and I have worked for the past ten years as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. During the interview process in Sioux Falls last year I stressed the importance of the orchestra’s commitment to contemporary music. When I was offered the position I then had to figure out how to make good on that commitment, but in such a way that would be engaging for an audience that did not have much experience with contemporary composers.

In a serendipitous moment, as I was going to get on the plane to sign the contract, I ran into a neighbor in Montclair, NJ who runs a music publishing house (Steve Culbertson, Subito Music). He told me that one of his composers, Paul Moravec, had just won the Pulitzer. That supplied the impetus for the idea of building my first season around these composers. The concept provided a convenient format to present some of the front-runners in American composition in a unified way, the idea being that those who attended all of our concerts would come out with a rather broad view of what kind of music was being composed now. The Pulitzer prize itself serves as a sort of stamp of approval, and a source of intrigue for the public. The success has been amazing.

The composers and pieces are:

John Corigliano – Gazebo Dances

Joseph Schwantner – Distant Runes and Incantations

Paul Moravec – Monserrat (Concerto for Cello and Orchestra)

Christopher Rouse – Kuku-Ilimoku, Rapture

Aaron Jay Kernis – Musica Celestis

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Tromba Lontana

These pieces are mixed, interestingly I believe, with standard and not-so-standard repertoire. But these are not mere concert openers. The intention is to give a real taste of the composer’s work, hence two contrasting pieces in some cases. I talk about the pieces both before and during the concert, and give an e mail address in the program for people to respond. I also go to the foyer of the hall to talk with people after the performances.

I have spoken with hundreds of people about this, either personally or by e mail. Literally everyone has been thoughtfully and energetically engaged.

Not everyone “liked” everything, but everyone has been excited that we are presenting this music in such a committed way. They seem to be changing the way they listen (which is one of my primary goals), from a passive entertainment mindset to a more engaged, discerning way of listening.

Perhaps the most interesting development is that our board wants to continue this type of programming, even to the point of making it part of the ensemble’s identity. They see it (as do I) as an effective way to distinguish our orchestra.

My hope is that I can continue building trust with my board and audience, starting with the programming of established contemporary composers and their works. I think that soon we will be able to program larger pieces and lesser-known composers and be able to bring our audience into the process even more. There is already talk of a composer-in-residence and other commissioning projects.

I would also hope that our success could serve as a model, one that other orchestras could use to expand their programming to include living composers on a regular basis. I think all orchestras in general, and smaller ones in particular, can truly benefit from engaging existing audiences and building new ones in this way.

I agree, and I also think it’s important (as I said in my last post) to share information. If David hadn’t e-mailed, I wouldn’t have known this was going on.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone