Piecing together a Cincinnati Symphony season

The lights dim in Music Hall. Musicians stop tuning and grow silent. The conductor walks out, takes a bow, lifts the baton and the music happens – a moment of magic.

Yet behind that moment stand years of planning by dedicated professionals – artists in their own right – that you don’t see on stage.

Music Director Louis Langrée conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Music Director Louis Langrée conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Putting together a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra season – 21 subscription programs divided into three seven-concert series, plus special, educational and outreach performances, not to mention the Pops subscription season and specials – is a mind-boggling task. Its participants describe it as a big jigsaw puzzle, menu planning, a house of cards about to collapse – you pick the metaphor.

It’s a complex mix of music, soloists, guest conductors, marketing, presentation, logistics and more.

CSO has been doing it a long time, longer than all but a handful of U.S. orchestras. In January, CSO announced its 125th anniversary season schedule for 2019-20, a lineup that showcases the orchestra’s legacy and its expertise in bringing a rich diversity to its performances.

Baton is raised

How is a season put together? Music Director Louis Langrée sets the overall musical goals, but it takes a team to build a season from them. “There actually is a working group, so we get together periodically to talk through programming,” said Chris Pinelo, vice president of communications. The group includes CSO executives in public relations, marketing, budgeting, production and other areas.

Nate Bachhuber, director of artistic planning, runs the meetings and is the lead player in assembling the season. “You come to the table with ideas,” Pinelo said. “Nate is the conduit to Louis, and it is a collaborative process, as we’re taking everything into consideration that makes sense.” 

“We generally start about three years out to lay out the calendar grid for a season,” said Robert McGrath, vice president/general manager. “First off, we have commitments with the Cincinnati Ballet, the Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival, so we know when, how and where those commitments fall, and then from that we try to block out these one-week periods where the CSO and Pops subscription weeks will be built. And we have to see how things align with holiday periods.”

“We’re constantly reaching out to guest conductors and key artists to put together the pieces of the larger puzzle,” Bachhuber added.

The group is not just looking at one season at a time. It often is planning a three-season arc or cycle that contains one or more themes – for example, a Beethoven Revolution cycle that will conclude in 2019-20 with a “Beethoven Akademie” program that re-creates the composer’s landmark 1808 concert.

Be our guest

After determining Langrée’s schedule – he conducts 10 of the season’s 21 subscription weekends and sets the artistic tone – the priority is finding guest conductors for the remainder of the calendar.

“Generally, guest conductors have to come a little bit early in the equation,” Bachhuber said – at least two years out. “It’s like when you’re doing a recipe – it’s like picking your protein. What am I going to base this around? What’s the center of this meal?”

To further the analogy, you don’t want beef every night. “Say we have 10 guest conductor slots,” Bachhuber said. “We wouldn’t invite 10 contemporary music specialists or 10 Baroque specialists. We would be looking for a balance of people with various specialties or an affinity for different types of repertoire. We’ll be looking for a balance of people with decades’ worth of gravitas to bring their experience to the orchestra with emerging, exciting new talents.”

Going solo

Many of those criteria hold true for guest soloists – except that the universe of such artists is much larger and even more diverse.

“I would say it’s easy to make a list of guest artists we would love to have, about five seasons’ worth of guest artists maybe – you could easily write that down right now,” Bachhuber said. “But then there’s a balance of their schedules … of what repertoire those guests are carrying in any given season. You know there are some pianists who can play any of eight concertos from week to week during a season, and there are some that play only two. So we need to know what those concertos are.”

Bachhuber added that the CSO also needs to play matchmaker between soloist and conductor, as well as repertoire: “What is the musical sensibility of a given conductor and a given soloist? Would they work well together? Have they worked together in the past elsewhere? And then you’re kind of lining those things up – to see that their repertoire and their availability and their musical sensibility all works within what you laid out for that week.”

Some assembly required

Just as you wouldn’t want a season filled with Handel or Bruckner specialists wielding the baton, the CSO wants to ensure a mixture of soloists who bring different things to the table. With so many moving parts, assembling a season is not an orderly, step-by-step task. 

“It’s really a nonlinear process with lots of stops and starts, mixing and matching,” Bachhuber said. “You can start out on a program thinking it’s going to be a Russian program, and we want someone to play Rach Two, but then you just don’t find the right pianist to play the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, and actually the person you’re really excited to work with is carrying Ravel that week. Then you have to say, what’s more important? To do a Russian program or to work with the soloists or this conductor?

“It’s like building a house of cards,” Bachhuber continued. “Sometimes it falls apart from no fault of your own, as when someone gets sick or has conflicting responsibilities. Life happens. Other times, you look at a program and think, ‘I’m not happy with the way this looks. That doesn’t look like I thought it was going to turn out. I need to start over.’ That’s how it feels with repertoire and soloists particularly.”

How the subscription programs are put together is an important part of building a season, too – how they’re spaced through the season, how many Friday mornings, Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. “That kind of decision is very audience-driven,” McGrath said. “And you don’t want five pianists on one subscription series or five violinists, so at various points you see the holes in your planning, and you have to make the right changes.”

The great harmonizer

Langrée plays a multi-faceted role in all this. “He’s in charge of the musical health of the orchestra,” Bachhuber said. “Part of that is repertoire. I would say he feels his primary role is to make sure this orchestra sounds great. Part of that is giving them the right repertoire to explore and to perform, making sure that it’s a balanced diet of things, that it provides the right challenges for the orchestra to stretch and grow.

“As someone who also conducts around the world with other ensembles, (Louis) brings to the table those experiences and says, ‘Oh, I conducted this person, and I really would love to invite them to Cincinnati.’ Louis is a great collaborator.

“He also looks to us for advice from an institutional standpoint – PR considerations, marketing considerations, budgetary and scheduling consideration, input from audiences,” Bachhuber said. “So we use his great knowledge and resources, and he collaborates with us on future seasons.”

Mission-driven storytelling 

Pinelo, who began managing the organization’s public relations and communications in 2007, said the CSO has changed its approach over the years to emphasize storytelling – a distinct theme or narrative for each concert. “I remember every concert week was essentially positioned the same way: ‘We’ve got the best soloist since sliced bread coming in this weekend, here it is,’ ” Pinelo said. “We’ve become more thoughtful about how we’re putting together the CSO season, the sequencing of things. It’s important that we’re not stacking five great pianists in a row, that we can actually focus on different story elements in different weeks.”

Bachhuber said that’s key in reaching modern audiences. “It’s people’s desire for that kind of ‘Director’s Cut’ insight, that kind of storytelling content,” he said. “It’s not enough for audiences today to just hear, ‘Trust us. This is a great piece of music.’ You have to share what the artist is thinking and what they might bring to it themselves because each program is also telling a story. Even if it’s not an obvious theme, it’s our job to make those musical connections and to help listeners find something that resonates with them.”

It’s all done with the CSO’s core mission in mind: to seek and share inspiration.

“Our mission and our vision and values statements are a driving force behind all our decision-making,” Bachhuber said. “We try to put Cincinnati on the map and be an ambassador for the city. We try to bring the best talent in the world to Cincinnati to share and foster inspiration with our audiences. Programming is a very tactile way in which all of those elements combine.”

Completing a puzzle: The 125th-year celebration concert

Every concert program has its own logic, a story to tell – sometimes in unconventional ways. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 125th Anniversary Celebration concert, scheduled for Jan. 18-19, 2020, provides an example.

“We were trying to put together sort of an ‘anti-gala’ program, but we wanted thoughtful works that highlight the orchestra’s history and showcase the acoustics of Music Hall,” said Robert McGrath, vice president and general manager.

“This concert is the momentous occasion, the moment that we need to encapsulate in one program what the CSO is about,” said Nate Bachhuber, director of artistic planning. The central idea is an interplay of the orchestra’s past, present and future.

That’s evident from the anniversary program’s start, with a forward-looking new work by retired CSO bassoonist William Winstead, followed by a nod to the past with a piece by Eugène Ysaÿe, the great Belgian violinist/conductor/composer who was CSO music director a century ago – 1918 to 1922. 

More cultural ties: Duke Ellington’s landmark “New World A-Comin’,” which the CSO recorded with Ellington, is followed by George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with the long-dead composer as soloist, courtesy of a piano roll he recorded. Gershwin also appeared with the CSO.

Another CSO commission, Daniel Bjarnason’s “Collider,” takes a look both at the distant past and the future through the inspiration of a particle accelerator. And it segues to the final piece, Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire,” which he wrote to include a “color keyboard” that projected lights on a screen. (Colors were assigned to each key.) This performance will update that experience and use the high-tech video artistry of Tal Rosner. “This is a piece that both connects to our past and the future,” Bachhuber said. “The Prometheus myth is one of creation, the spark of creativity that propels us forward.”

More past, present and future: Former CSO members will be invited to perform with the orchestra; the CSO’s longtime partner – May Festival Chorus, the organization the CSO was created to perform with – will join it on stage; and members of the Cincinnati Youth Symphony Orchestra and Diversity Fellowship program will be involved.


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