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'It's like a jigsaw puzzle'

MSO Music Director Elizabeth Schulze carefully crafts the repertoire for each season

MSO Music Director Elizabeth Schulze carefully crafts the repertoire for each season

February 06, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Elizabeth Schulze gets letters, blistering letters, from patrons irate the Maryland Symphony Orchestra does not focus on women composers often enough.

Then there are the letters urging more scheduling of Bach, Beethoven or Gershwin.

Or there's too much emphasis on contemporary works. Or not enough.

It's enough to make the MSO music director's head spin.

"You can't hear Beethoven's Five every year," Schulze says. "Some people can, but most people would prefer to have some variety every season."

With pride, Schulze calls MSO's next season among the more balanced she has crafted since joining the orchestra four years ago.

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Peppered with guest artists, classic and contemporary works, and challenging music, the season's architect says assembling nine performances is easier said than done. Even if the season's general template remains the same from year to year.

A Saturday, July 5, Salute to Independence kicks off the year, which resumes in September with the annual Pops! concert. The MasterWorks classical concert series begins in October, continuing through March 2004 and interrupted only for the crowd-pleasing holiday performance in December and a growing Family concert in March.

"There are a number of challenges. It's not just open the dictionary of great pieces, point your finger in and pick one," Schulze says. "The thing is, there's an embarrassment of riches, and it's up to me to distill that in five MasterWorks concerts."

Last spring, she began fashioning a program, presenting it to the MSO Artistic Advisory Committee in the summer. Revision continued into the fall as guest artists were contacted and performances tweaked or juggled depending upon availability.

Planning to feature principal flute Frances Lapp Averitt in a spring 2004 concert, for instance, the schedule was shuffled when the flutist reminded the symphony she is taking a sabbatical during the second half of next season.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle you have to put together," says Executive Director Jean Hamilton. "It's not linear, you know. It's really an ongoing process."

Among the travails, Hamilton says, is that as the guiding force behind the season, Schulze must be all things to all people. Or at least try to be.

So, she must balance audience requests with the needs of the orchestra with ever present budgetary concerns and board feedback, not to mention her own vision for the orchestra.

"We have wonderful contemporary works, but we also have balance with repertoire the audience wants to hear that is also challenging for the orchestra," Hamilton says. "It hits all the targets, and, of course, from a success point of view for the orchestra, we hope it appeals to the audience."

As chairman of the Artistic Advisory Committee, Brendan Fitzsimmons has an opportunity to consult on the upcoming program. Though the committee's contribution to the process varies from year to year, its members work with Schulze to craft as crowd-pleasing a cross section of works as possible.

Considering the many voices Schulze must satisfy, Fitzsimmons is pleased with the job she does to listen to every concern and make changes accordingly.

"There are some wonderful pieces coming up, pieces that everyone will know," he says. "There's something for everyone, and that's really the goal of the committee, to have something for everyone. For everyone who doesn't like a piece of music, there is someone that loves it."

What cannot be overlooked is doing right by the musicians who often drive at least an hour from Virginia or Washington, D.C., to perform throughout the season.

"One of the reasons the quality of music has improved is we've been able to retain wonderful musicians," Fitzsimmons says. "We have musicians who drive an hour to get here. We have to make it worth their while to come up here musically."

A member of the advisory committee, associate principal cellist Jonathan Velsey's job is to poll musicians. He gauges their wants and needs about repertoire and other quality of life issues.

"The orchestra's been very happy with Elizabeth's programming, and I think excited about the fact we can play these more challenging works we have presented in recent seasons," he says. "I think a lot of the orchestra felt very energized about that, playing something it could sink its teeth into."

Already, Schulze and Hamilton have their eyes trained on the 2004-05 season, eager to get a step ahead on future seasons.

Still, they look forward to an exciting 2003-04. And if there is grumbling about this piece missing or that composition lacking, Schulze says not to worry.

"If they don't hear their favorite this year, for goodness sake, they'll hear it next year," she says. "Because the great ones do rise to the top."

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