The details of a new orchestral season are always of interest. Which favorite soloists are returning? Which blockbuster pieces will we enjoy hearing again? Which little known works‹or up-and-coming artists‹are being showcased for the first time?
The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2008-09 season offers all of the usual interest and more. Because deep in the details, and upstairs behind the scenes, a carefully thought out shift is underway to help make each audience member's choice of what to hear a far easier and more comfortable fit‹all without compromising artistic intentions and directions.
The Philadelphia Orchestra launches forward in 2008-09, with the first of four seasons under Charles Dutoit as chief conductor and artistic adviser. And patrons from across the Philadelphia region are eagerly looking forward to the kind of exciting programming for which Maestro Dutoit is so well known.
"Everything is in place for a dynamic, unforgettable season," comments Philadelphia Orchestra Association President and CEO James Undercofler. "Building upon the energy and excitement of Christoph Eschenbach's years as music director, the discerning stewardship of Charles Dutoit over the next four seasons provides us with unparalleled opportunities for artistic creativity and spectacular concerts. Maestro Eschenbach returns in 2008-09 with some terrific programs, while Maestro Dutoit and a roster of stellar guest conductors bring us creative perspectives on pieces from across the repertoire."
And yet, The Philadelphia Orchestra, long known for the range and magnificence of its programming, is trying something new and potentially very important in 2008-09. There isn't the obvious kind of programming theme that has served as a connecting thread across some seasons: 20th-Century Pieces. Monumental Works. Rediscovering Beethoven.
Instead, the change is more subtle, less categorical, and potentially more influential, while laying out new ground rules for the long term. But looking at a listing of the 2008-09 season's concert schedule, it may not even be apparent. All the usual suspects are present‹Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart; concertos, symphonies, tone poems; French, German, American; new, favorites, and unknown.
In truth, for more than a century, an important part of The Philadelphia Orchestra's audience has consisted of subscribers, who each year choose to purchase a series package of several concerts. These thousands of music lovers represent the core of every orchestra's fan base, and a substantial pillar in organizational finances, too. Their early signing-up for multiple concerts ensures them of good seating‹while at the same time providing the Orchestra with an assured audience base around which to plan season by season.
But where do the series packages come from? Who parcels out each season into discrete sets of musical programs that the audiences will want to choose among? In truth, it's a collaborative and dynamic effort between the Orchestra's artistic and marketing staff personnel.
Over the years, orchestra administrators around the country have felt that there had to be a better way to negotiate through the annual ritual of sorting out the programming for the year ahead. How indeed to divide up the concerts into series packages? How best to distribute the musical nuggets and warhorses evenly across the many series on offer, while also assigning the more interesting (or challenging, from some audience members' perspective) new and unknown works. There has never seemed to be a right or wrong answer to this question of balance.
Now, following years of ongoing work researching audience dynamics and trends, and in conjunction with Philadelphia Orchestra ticket buyers, the artistic and marketing staffs of the Orchestra believe that allowing people to have a greater choice in what types of concerts they purchase can be the right answer going forward. Thousands of audience members have been heard in this process.
"The idea is less about planning the season differently and more about recognizing and planning for the different experiences that our audiences are looking for," says J. Edward Cambron, vice president for marketing and public relations. "Not every subscriber is looking for the same kind of series. Some want favorite pieces they know. Others want to experience music they don't know. Some enjoy hearing a conductor talk about a work before it's played, while others want their concerts straight-up, no talking. We've always known these different desires were out there. But beginning with 2008-09 we're choosing to follow our research and go forward by packaging series differently. And we are going to do everything we can to help our audiences navigate these new options."
Indeed, beginning next season there's been a careful rethinking and realignment of the programming process with an integrated marketing component. All of which is designed to provide patrons with more satisfying choices‹while at the same time allowing the Orchestra's conductors to continue pursuing and assembling their best, most creative programming ideas.
New Series Collections
With the 2008-09 season, The Philadelphia Orchestra introduces four Series Collections: Masterworks, Connoisseur, Odyssey, and Celebration. Each of the Collections is built around fundamental audience attitudes and concert desires, some of which overlap between Collections, with musical programs selected from across the season to appeal to differing audience choices. In addition, concert enhancements‹ranging from introductions of the music spoken from the stage to live, in-performance projections of the artists onstage to post-concert opportunities for mingling (and getting to know other subscribers)‹are offered for select series in three of the four Collections. The four Collections join together with the Orchestra's popular Access Series, with its in-depth exploration of one or two pieces at each concert, and Chamber Music Concerts, to offer a broad range of choices for differing audience tastes and desires.
"Of course, everyone will be curious to hear more about the differing kinds of subscriber we found in our research, and to understand which kind of audience member they may be," says Cambron. "We think the information is more subtle than that, with crossover between flavors of audiences, and commonality being as important as the differences. But the variations that our Collections represent‹and they're fairly well reflected in each Collection's name‹are central. And they can help steer people to a series that really feels right for them."
"This is about both the music and the concert experience," adds Bret Dorhout, director of artistic planning. "It's been a year of interesting discovery to better understand The Philadelphia Orchestra's audience, so that we can create programs that engage subscribers who have varying tastes and preferences."
"We believe audiences will find next season's series offerings more natural to choose from," says Undercofler. "Our changes don't represent magic bullet solutions for changing times, but they do show our willingness to fundamentally realign the business of packaging our tickets to offer the public what they want. We're not changing the great music that's onstage‹The Philadelphia Orchestra remains second to none in the world in that regard. But we can commit to changing our outlook about packaging the music, and about how our audiences are able to choose to experience some of the best music ever created."
The Season's Music
Charles Dutoit leads eight weeks of concerts during his first year as chief conductor. As might be expected by all of us who have watched him over the years, his programs are quintessential combinations of magnificent showstoppers (Pictures at an Exhibition, Stravinsky's complete Firebird, Berlioz's Requiem) along with a variety of more subtle, creative repertoire gems both hot and cool (Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto with favorite soloist Martha Argerich, Sibelius's First Symphony, the U.S. premiere of Penderecki's Concerto grosso No. 1 for three cellos, Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, or Honegger's Third Symphony.)
Simon Rattle returns, continuing his long and unique artistic association with The Philadelphia Orchestra, with performances that feature Bruckner's Eighth Symphony and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Other returning conductors include Rafael Frê_hbeck de Burgos, James Conlon, Michael Tilson Thomas (making his first main season appearance with the Orchestra), David Zinman, David Robertson, and Andrê© Previn. Conducting debuts include Emmanuel Krivine and Yannick Nê©zet-Sê©guin, music director-designate of the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
Other noteworthy works on offer include Bruckner's Sixth Symphony and Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony (with Christoph Eschenbach), the violin concertos of Brahms (with Julia Fischer) and Beethoven (with Christian Tetzlaff), and the Fifth Symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich.
Continuing Philadelphia's tradition of attracting the world's best soloists, the season's line-up (in addition to those already mentioned) includes cellist Han-Na Chang; violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gil Shaham, Concertmaster David Kim (celebrating his 10th anniversary with the Orchestra), and Leila Josefowicz; and pianists Stewart Goodyear and Andrê© Watts.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2008-09 is offering a season full of great music, great artists, and just the right concert experience.
Eric Sellen lives in Brighton, England, where he edits and writes about symphonic and theater music. He previously held administrative positions with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony, and The Philadelphia Orchestra.