Creative Orchestral Programing Part 1: The Art of War

Updated 5.16.12

As a conductor, I often get asked in professional interviews what I consider to be the most important aspect of my job, or similarly, where I have the greatest impact on an organization.

For me, there is not one answer for this question but two: fundraising and programing, the business and the artistry. Fundraising is obviously important since it is the fuel needed to power the machine. But it is the artistic side, the programing and performance which draws the crowd, keeps them coming back, and can build an organization.

Originally, I had written out several paragraphs explaining point by point why it is important to venture into non-traditional concert models. But upon further reflection I decided that the best way to demonstrate this was to share the details of two programs I created and performed during the past year. The first one was a large scale event while the second one was much smaller. Each of these concerts was able to tie in an outside idea and create a cohesive and immersive experience for audience members and performers. Because of the creative approach and execution, each concert became a highlight of the season.

Part 1

The Art of War
Arizona State University Sinfonietta

This was really more than a concert, it was a mega-event. The idea was to engage the audience members and have them contemplate art in various forms (visual, aural, etc…) and its connection to the act of war. The evening unfolded for the patrons as follows:

The balletic and choreographed motions of martial arts began the experience before attendees ever stepped foot into the building. Upon arriving at the concert hall, audience members discovered a martial artist performing fighting demonstrations around the entrance. As the patrons entered the building they were greeted by ROTC cadets in full camouflaged battle gear distributing programs. In the lobby, the patrons had the opportunity to experience an exhibition featuring twelve newly commissioned works of visual art.

Vorspiel (Prelude to The Valkyries) by Annie Dunn from The Art of War Exhibition

Each artist had earned a spot in the show via a competition held months earlier. The selected winners were asked to create new pieces specifically for this event based on their impressions of the music which was going to be performed that evening. The commissioned works shared the same name of the piece of music which inspired them, creating a bond between the exhibition and the music which was to follow.

The program for the evening featured music that either depicted famous battles or were reflective about the nature of war. Overall, the music was a mix of well known and popular pieces with lesser known but still good quality works.

Wagner Vorspiel (Prelude) and Ride of the Valkyries
Elgar Sospiri
Liszt Hunnenschlaft (Battle of the Huns)
Schuman Prayer in Time of War
Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture with Choir

Prayer in Time of War, Battle of the Huns, and Valkyries by Charles Perera from The Art of War Exhibition

To make the transition from the Vorspiel of The Valkyries to the Ride (which are in separate acts and different keys), I devised a multi-measure chromatic transition which worked flawlessly at stitching the two sections together as one larger musical selection. Elgar’s Sospiri and Liszt’s Battle of the Huns both utilized an organ which was available in the hall. The introspection of Sospiri helped balance out the robust and bombastic Battle of the Huns which concluded the first half of the program.

During intermission, audience members were free to browse the art exhibition and reflect on what they had heard, and view how different artists transformed the music into visual representations. During this time, there was another martial arts demonstration, which now included an element of fire.

The second half opened with William Schuman’s Prayer in Time of War which worked well as a wasabi piece. And by that, I mean it cleansed the audience’s pallets (minds) allowed them to better perceive the programatic journey of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with fresh ears.

1812 by Geoff Gildner from The Art of War Exhibition

I was not happy with the available choral transcriptions for the 1812 Overture, so I wrote a new version with some help from a Russian speaking friend. For the canon fire, we had setup a series of large speakers at the back of the house which caught many in the audience by surprise (since the entire evening consisted of sounds coming at them from the stage only.) The chimes in the 1812 are symbolic of church bells ringing in celebration, and as such were placed in the uppermost balcony. Their sound washed down onto the audience members in a fashion similar to bells tolling in steeples high overhead.

The end result was a highly collaborative event which included cross-collaborations between several organizations (artistic and military), created over a dozen new works of visual art, prompted the audience to ponder the relationship between art and war, boosted audience attendance at least a three-fold, and concluded with three call-backs to the stage.

In part 2 we’ll look at creative programing on a smaller scale, using the theme of a movie produced in the 1980‘s as a programing guide (because we all know the 80’s rocked!)

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