Curating a San Antonio Symphony Season

The 2020-2021 season has finally been announced and we couldn't be more thrilled! As usual, we have some terrific repertoire and guest artists lined up. For a typical Classics program, the musicians will start practicing their individual parts days, weeks, or months in advance depending on the complexity of the music and then get together to rehearse a few days before the first performance. The actual creative process, however, begins long before this at the desk of Katie Brill, our Manager of Artistic Planning. She and her cohorts are responsible for the mighty task of creating a season that thrills audiences and musicians alike! I had the opportunity to chat with her recently about what this process looks like.

How far ahead do you plan the San Antonio Symphony season?

We try to plan at least a year and a half in advance, which means that as we're sitting here just ahead of the 2020-2021 season announcement, we're already penciling some things in for the 2021-2022 season.

It seems that there are so many moving parts to season planning-guest artists, hall availability, repertoire, education and outreach initiatives, collaborations with partner organizations such as Ballet San Antonio and Opera San Antonio etc. Where do you start?

We don't own our hall, so we start by seeing what dates the Tobin Center has available. Next, we identify which dates we would like to use for Classics and which dates we would like to use for Pops. Once the dates are set, Gregg Gleasner, our Senior Artistic Advisor, will look into what soloists and conductors are available for the Classics dates, putting his considerable contacts in the industry to use. While he's doing that, I will start working on programming for our Pops series, and Jeremy Brimhall, our Director of Education, will work on dates and programming for our Young People's Concerts in coordination with the calendars of local school districts and our Associate Conductor Noam Aviel. When it comes to concerts outside of the Tobin Center, I work with Marketing, Development, Education, Operations, and Executive Director Corey Cowart to determine which locations are the most strategically important for us to perform. We then reach out to venues to talk through the details.

Who decides what repertoire we play?

As Gregg works with conductors to plan the Classics programs, he periodically sends drafts of the full Classics series to Executive Director Corey Cowart and me for review. This gives all of us an opportunity to step back and look at the season as a whole to make sure there's a good balance. We try to find repertoire that plays to the strengths of our artists and that includes pieces that will attract an audience. Sebastian will become our Music Director Emeritus starting next season, conducting just 2 concerts a year, but he remains part of the conversation.

What role do the staff musicians and patrons play in this process?

We get feedback from the musicians through the Artistic Liaison Committee, an elected committee that represents the musicians at large on artistic matters. They will tell us if there's a guest artist the musicians particularly liked or if they have any programming ideas. We do not have an official mechanism for canvassing our

Young People's Concert from 2019-20

Women in Music photo credit: KIPP Texas-San Antonio

patrons' opinions, but we often get much-valued feedback from them through informal conversations. In the last several weeks, we've been calling every ticket holder to discuss their options for the cancelled concerts. In doing so, we've also been able to chat with them individually and gather any thoughts they have about the orchestra, which has been really great!

What are you most looking forward to in our upcoming season?

This is a tough question considering how many exciting programs we have planned for the upcoming season! But, splitting hairs, I can narrow it down to two: the first is featuring Colin Currie as percussion soloist. Colin is a great musician and the piece he is performing is relatively new. Andrew Norman's Switch is based on the idea that the soloist's instruments manipulate the other sections of the orchestra in a variety of ways. The second is Symphony Concertmaster Eric Gratz playing Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. I'm a big fan of Stravinsky's work. Eric is going to sound amazing playing this piece, as he always does when he has a solo!

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected our season planning?

We are still determining all of the ways the pandemic is affecting our season planning while the full impact of it continues to unfold. Right now, we are having internal discussions as we continue to monitor the situation. That said, it is definitely changing the way we think of the concert experience, taking into account the safety of our musicians and guest artists as well as the safety of our patrons.

What's been your proudest moment so far working for the San Antonio Symphony?

When mezzo-soprano Veronica Williams was our artist-in-residence 2 years ago, I arranged at Sebastian's suggestion for her to perform at Haven of Hope with a brass quintet of Symphony musicians. The audience loved it so much that they contacted us a couple of weeks later and arranged for a large group to attend one of our Classics concerts! Being able to develop our audience in this way was very gratifying.

What's your dream concert program given unlimited funds?

I would love to be able to do Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. It's just an incredible piece of music-a very personal setting of the traditional mass with lots of awe-inspiring fugues. Unfortunately, it's also very expensive to program due to its massive scale. For a start, it requires that we hire FOUR vocal soloists and a very big chorus! Being a pianist, my favorite piano concerto is Prokofiev's Third. In general, though, I try not to let my personal preferences influence the Symphony's programming decisions.