The big picture

A feature of Hugh Wolff’s term at the helm of the Frankfurt RSO has been his imaginative program planning, juxtaposing contrasting works, and setting an over-arching theme for each season.

One of the fun and most challenging things about being a music director is planning a season of programs. When I leaf through orchestra brochures I often see the formula: overture, concerto, symphony. Art museums today plan their shows with enormous scholarship and care. The order the artworks are placed on the wall, the accompanying text, even the background color of the wall are strategically organized to make the experience meaningful. A concert has to be similarly planned for maximum impact. It falls on us to create programs where the pieces talk to each other, where there is a message from all the works taken together. I have done this for single concerts as well as whole seasons.

Themes explored over whole seasons at Frankfurt have included Fate, Homeland (Heimat) and Belief.

Often these themes are extremely broad, leaving a wide range of possibilities.  I’m not suggesting that every piece be about the same thing for a year.  You want to present all types of music, but related to an over-arching concept.  Composers are all grappling with the big human issues.  The season in Frankfurt on the theme of “Belief” looked at how composers from different eras had completely different takes on this concept.  What did Bach, as opposed to Messiaen, think about belief and how did it inform his music?  The works we played that year ranged from Messiaen’s Eclairs sur l’Au-delà and Mahler’s Second Symphony to Britten’s War Requiem and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.

Thematic programming allows you to combine pieces that would otherwise never be juxtaposed.  We did an end-of-the-millennium concert that included a piece from each of the four preceding centuries.  We started with a Gesualdo madrigal sung by a small vocal ensemble, then played a Handel concerto grosso and a Schumann concerto. We finished with Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, sung by the eight vocalists that had started the concert.  When would you encounter these works on one program?   It wasn’t terribly complex, but I would guess that this program had never been done anywhere in the world before.

Audience members have told me these themes add real meaning to the concert experience.  And when the whole organization is involved, it makes a statement to the community that you are about something more than just performing music.