Alan Arak has been subscribing to New York Philharmonic concerts for about 20 seasons. "At first," he says, "I had a goal of hearing all the Mahler symphonies live." And that was how he chose concerts. "After that goal had been met, though, I wanted to hear other stuff. I actually like just about everything, but contemporary music will draw me in. Except for Deborah Voigt and a few other singers, I select concerts more for the repertoire than for who the soloist might be."
When it comes to repertoire, subscribers have plenty to choose from: The New York Philharmonic designs each concert season to include a mix of music composed over a three-century span. The 2004-05 concert season, for example, includes 104 works, 62 of them written since 1900.
But how typical is Mr. Arak, an investment banker, who also sings professionally? How important is repertoire to subscribers and single-ticket buyers? The short answer is programming matters...a lot. Longer answers reveal more.
The concert Mr. Arak chose to attend this month, as part of his "Create-Your-Own" subscription, pairs the familiar (Liszt's A Faust Symphony) with a rare mid-20th-century "dramatic madrigal" (Coro di morti by the late Goffredo Petrassi), conducted by Riccardo Muti. "The Petrassi is unusual, and that is the attraction for me," says Mr. Arak. Coincidentally, he adds, "I recently found out I will be singing in this program [with the Men of the New York Choral Artists], so my wife will be using my ticket."
Subscriber Cedric Fan is also drawn to new music: "It's not that I don't like Beethoven and Rachmaninoff‹I do‹but I've heard a lot of standard stuff. Rather than hear it again, I choose contemporary music. I don't know anything about Jefferson Friedman, but I really look forward to hearing this work," says Mr. Fan of Friedman's The Throne of the Third Heaven..., which will have its New York premiere next month with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Martin Boxer and his wife also gravitate to the unfamiliar. "It's most fun to hear music of several periods on one program. And we are not afraid of premieres or modern pieces." So he may avoid some of the all-Mozart concerts planned for 2005-06 to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday. On the other hand, Carol Jackson, who "loves Mozart," calls her concert tastes "old fashioned," adding, "I know critics say we should support new, young composers‹and we should. But John Adams is not for me." Mahler is, though, and she looks forward to the Symphony No. 6, conducted by Music Director Lorin Maazel, which ends the subscription season.
Parents of music students often bring them to concerts‹and let the kids pick the programs. Kim Acquaro, whose son is a bassist, says, "We try to hear things we've both played‹I'm a violinist and music teacher." May concerts, featuring Pinchas Zukerman as conductor and soloist, include Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, which they both know, "but the Stravinsky [Histoire du Soldat] we haven't heard before, so we are getting the best of both worlds." Bob Reissner says his daughter, who studies violin and music education in college, favors concerts with violin soloists, but after that, "we look at the repertoire and choose programs with a Mahler symphony or a good mix of music, even if we don't know the individual works."
One familiar piece seems to be enough of a draw for many. "I've heard the Brandenburgs before," says David Leiter of his concert choice. "The Stravinsky will be a bonus." Mr. Leiter has a suggestion for those puzzling over unfamiliar pieces. "Go to the Philharmonic Website [newyorkphilharmonic.org] and listen to a sample. I've found this very helpful."
Or line up with Alan Arak: "The Philharmonic is top-shelf in all the world. I trust this ensemble to program pieces of merit‹and then to perform them as well as they can be performed. I'm happy to listen and be challenged."
Margaret Shakespeare, who lives in New York City and on the farmlands of Long Island, writes frequently about music.