Building an Audience in South Dakota...with Pulitzer Winners

Building an Audience in South Dakota…with Pulitzer Winners

Enticing new audiences and engaging longtime subscribers with a well-crafted approach to new music programming.

Written By

Delta David Gier

Delta David Gier
Photo by Mark Pollard

In November 2003, I conducted the South Dakota Symphony as a candidate for the position of music director. After almost twenty years in New York, ten spent as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, making music on the prairie was a surprisingly refreshing experience. During the course of the week-long rehearsal/interview process, I had a rather lengthy meeting with the Argus Leader, the main paper in Sioux Falls. The arts writer and I talked about many things during our two hours together, but one thing apparently stuck with her. The headline of the article later that week read, “Conductor Says Contemporary Music Is Very Important.” To be honest, I thought, “I’m dead. They’ll never hire me.” But when they called to offer me the position, I had another dilemma on my hands: How do I make good on my commitment to contemporary music and still have a job at the end of my first season?

As I was getting ready to jump on the plane and go sign my contract in South Dakota, I ran into my neighbor in Montclair, New Jersey, Steve Culbertson, publisher at Subito Music. He told me that one of his composers, Paul Moravec, had just won the Pulitzer Prize for music. I congratulated him and continued on to the airport. Then, while on the plane, an idea struck me: an entire season of Pulitzer prize-winning composers, one on each concert. It seemed to me an interesting way to present prominent American composers in a unified way. Those attending all of our concerts could come out of the season with a fairly well-rounded familiarity with what is being produced musically in our country, and perhaps find a new way to connect with music.

While the immediate concern was how to incorporate contemporary music into the present season in an enticing fashion, the long-term goal has been to lay the groundwork for building an ever more serious engagement with the music being created in our own time. It is my strongly held belief that we need to be actively participating in the process of establishing composers in the concert hall. In our day, this includes the performance of living composers as well as an ongoing exploration of music written in the second half of the 20th century. On a philosophical level, most would agree that this is a worthy pursuit. Practically, working toward that goal is a matter of building trust. Enter this Pulitzer concept—a sort of “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval that lets people know that there is some consensus about the work of a particular composer and a reason for performing these works that lies beyond the tastes of the person doing the programming.

Our season is basically 13 weeks, plus a few auxiliary concerts. We have six “classical,” three chamber orchestra, and four “pops” weeks. For this first season, we used only the six classical weeks for the Pulitzer pieces, mostly because of the costs involved in performing contemporary works. All of our chamber orchestra concerts are performed four times, once in Sioux Falls and then in three other locations around the state, and the repeat performance rentals make programming contemporary music cost-prohibitive.

The orchestra has a core of nine full-time players, principals in the orchestra that also make up the Dakota String Quartet and the Dakota Wind Quintet. As these entities they perform all season, touring throughout the region with a concert series of their own, along with many types of educational and outreach services. The rest of the orchestra comes from around the region: freelance musicians from as far away as Minneapolis/St. Paul, teachers at colleges and various primary and secondary schools, and musicians who have picked up other careers but who still play quite well.

The audience in Sioux Falls is drawn from a community of approximately 125,000 people, of which our orchestra has 2,400 subscribers—a substantial percentage. This shows that we have huge support for our symphony orchestra in our region, where we are treasured as a cultural gem. As with most American orchestras, however, the SDSO new music offerings have been sporadic and relatively sparse up to this point in time. The sophistication and open-mindedness of our audience definitely gives me freedom to explore repertoire with them, but I find that cluing them in on the reasoning behind the programming is extremely helpful. It’s a question of syntax, really. Lack of familiarity with the multiplicity of compositional languages can make individual encounters with new music seem over-(or under-)whelming. Put in context and given a reason for serious consideration, these works have a greater possibility for connecting with their hearers.

Of the six Pulitzer composers that we have presented this season, five fall into a sort of “usual suspect” category, and the sixth was Moravec, the most recent winner:

John Corigliano: Gazebo Dances
Joseph Schwantner: Distant Runes and Incantations
Paul Moravec: Monserrat (Concerto for Cello and Orchestra)
Christopher Rouse: Kuku-Ilimoku and Rapture
Aaron Jay Kernis: Musica Celestis
John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Tromba Lontana

The idea was to present a substantive representation of each composer in order that our audience could come away from the encounter with a real sense of who they are. To be sure, none of these pieces is particularly challenging to the ear, especially for those of us for whom contemporary music is a staple in our musical diet. Again, building trust is key, preparing the way for engagement with all types of concert music. To that end, I have taken great care to present these pieces in the most engaging way possible, in order to give our audience a good perspective. The balance of the program of every concert had to be such that each contemporary piece fit well with more standard repertoire. We have played symphonies of Dvorak, Beethoven, and Sibelius, concertos of Schumann, Grieg, and Prokofiev, but the thread tying the season together has been contemporary. One of the most interesting programs featured the Mozart “Prague” Symphony to start, the C.P.E. Bach Cello Concerto with Hai-ye Ni (Associate Principal Cello, New York Philharmonic), intermission, the Moravec (before which he spoke briefly), ending with Kodaly’s Galanta Dances. Having Paul there participating in the rehearsal process, speaking to the orchestra and the audience, was a real highlight of the season for all of us.

I make it a habit to speak to and with our audience about the music we perform whenever appropriate, which is especially important when it comes to new music. The days when orchestras could simply program any music, perform it without explanation, and expect audiences to swallow it whole are gone, if those days ever actually existed in the first place. Part of the problem with programming new music in our present day comes from the legacy of decades of concerts of music that audiences found difficult to understand, played without any attempt at communicating why this music was important for them to hear. Again, syntax, unfamiliarity with a language most audiences don’t speak. Audiences don’t generally come prepared to participate in a concert so actively, where they need to engage in understanding what is being performed. I am trying to take our audience beyond the level of entertainment to which they are accustomed, to the place where they can see themselves as participants in the perpetuation of art music, as this is what they are in actuality. Our audience seems to appreciate that perspective and have responded beautifully; sometimes gratefully, other times indignantly, but always real-ly. At the end of our season, those who have attended all six of these programs seem to be taking pride in their new knowledge of who is composing what and how they fit into the bigger picture.

I should step aside briefly and say that there is, probably quite obviously, a good deal of verbal communication going on here. Most audiences appreciate the connection beyond the proscenium, an opportunity to engage more personally with the performers and to “catch the fire” of our enthusiasm for the music. There is always the question of “How much is too much?” and we have to keep from falling into the trap of spoon-feeding, but a tastefully brief introduction or enticement to an unfamiliar piece simply helps a lot. This is not something that comes easily for everyone, but with some creativity the right person or people can be found to provide the appropriate entrée in each situation. Clear but passionate communication about the music has been a very important element in the success of our presentation of these works.

It is very satisfying to converse with our audience about these newer pieces. After each concert, I try to spend a significant amount of time in the foyer of the hall talking with people about the performance. The conversations are far and away mostly about the “new piece.” I also have a symphony e-mail address which is provided in every program. Whenever and however I receive it, the feedback is always very thoughtful, but also visceral. Not everyone loves every piece, of course, but everyone that I have spoken with about this (literally hundreds by this point) has said they were glad we are doing this. For me, the most satisfying aspect comes from the fact that I see that people are starting to listen in a different way. They are truly engaging more and more, with all of the music we are playing, but the contemporary music is the impetus for this deepening of their (our) experience. Antal Dorati once said that a good audience listens very, very hard. That’s what I’m after.

And the orchestra, not least in this equation, has not only risen to this challenge but has vigorously embraced the concept. A steady diet of fresh repertoire certainly has had an invigorating effect, even if some of the programs feel a little hectic in their preparation. The players, gauging reactions in the community, tell me that they find some people more willing to consider the symphony because of this series. As I often remind our listeners, there are people in the hall, perhaps sitting right next to them, for whom contemporary music is the most interesting music we play. It would seem that this is a very effective way to reach new audiences, those who would not otherwise be interested in most of what we play, but who are artistically and intellectually curious. We can definitely work with that.

It does take a whole lot more effort to put together a season in which contemporary music is fully integrated. Passionate communication is a primary factor in presenting art music of any era. It has worked wonderfully for us this season, and we are continuing into next season as well. The next step for us? Steven Stucky with the South Dakota Symphony for a lecture/demonstration followed by a complete performance of his 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra. Because of the groundwork we have laid, I am confident that we will have a wonderful musical experience, and a major success.