Take a behind-the-scenes look at the season planning process for the Colorado Symphony. (Pictured above, left to right: Tony Pierce, Izabel Zambrzycki, Nick Tisherman, Peter Oundjian.)
The spring unveiling of a new Colorado Symphony season is a highly anticipated annual event for subscribers, patrons, and occasional concertgoers alike. Anything seems possible leading up to the announcement with an endless combination of repertoire, conductors, and guest artists waiting to be revealed.
Building a full concert season is like assembling an enormous puzzle, one that requires countless hours and input from several key contributors and stakeholders within the organization. This is especially true for a season as robust as the Colorado Symphony’s, which regularly contains more concerts — 150 annually — than that of many orchestras around the country. It requires research, debate, compromise, and creativity to stay on the cutting edge of symphonic programming while crafting a season schedule that fulfills the hopes and desires of many different stakeholders in the organization.
With the recent unveiling of the Colorado Symphony’s upcoming Centennial Season, we spoke with a few key members of the season planning process, offering a look behind the curtain at the inner workings of the orchestra’s creative process.
What role do you play in the season planning process?
Peter Oundjian | Principal Conductor: I work closely with Tony Pierce and Izabel Zambrzycki to create a season of engaging and contrasting programs. These are all discussed with our Artistic Committee who give feedback and input so that together we present the most interesting season we can conjure.
Tony Pierce | Chief Artistic Officer: The first thing I’d say is that I have an amazing team to work with here at the Colorado Symphony. It’s a source of pride for us that we work together in a coordinated effort. It’s a massive undertaking each season and we all approach it with a great sense of responsibility and opportunity.
Izabel Zambrzycki | Artistic General Manager: I work very closely with Tony Pierce and Peter Oundjian to bring the season to life. Tony and I are very collaborative on every program we do, but I tend to focus more on the classical season programming, and we work together on the non-classical offerings. I also play a key role in communicating with the different teams about these programs and work closely with our marketing department on bringing the season brochure to fruition.
Nick Tisherman | Assistant Principal Oboe and current Artistic Committee Chair: I work with, and on behalf of, the nine musicians of the Artistic Committee, as well as Tony Pierce and Izabel Zambrzycki to decide on programming across the full sweep of the season. Our largest role is narrowing down a list of conductors we’d like to see on the podium. When a great conductor comes through, it electrifies the orchestra, and it is our job to make sure that experience is recreated as much as possible. Sometimes I will be consulted for decisions on specific repertoire, and I offer my ideas and suggestions based on what I think could fit the program well. Other times, a program or set of programs are mostly fleshed out, but I can give unique insight as a player to fine-tune how the programs fall on the calendar to maximize the artistic quality of the musicians.
When planning a symphony season, what are some of your goals and what do you hope to achieve?
PO: For both the orchestra and our listeners, we try to create a nice balance between the familiar, the new, and the rediscovered. Each program should have its own unique appeal. In the end we want everyone to be tempted to attend every single program or at least to wish they could!
NT: It’s all about a balancing act of old and new, more popular and more classical, well-worn favorites and undiscovered gems. I want to galvanize and inspire our audiences both with our shared favorite repertoire, and through projects in which we engage diverse artists and perform diverse genres to stay on the cutting edge of what a symphonic ensemble can do. And of course, I want my colleagues to be inspired to come to work every day. Ideally, if the forces onstage are excited about the calendar, so too are our audiences.
TP: Our goal is always to inspire our community and our artists in the pursuit of our mission. We obviously have budgetary goals, but we believe that if our artists aren’t inspired then my team is missing the boat. We always have a list of soloists, conductors, and particular works we understand both the orchestra and our audience enjoy, but we need to always be searching a bit to think outside the box, take risks, and continue to be active curators of this artform.
IZ: I would say there are always two primary goals for me when looking at the season. First, is there a balance to the repertoire in terms of pieces that will be popular and exciting for audiences as well as pieces that will feed the orchestra’s souls and present them with new challenges. Second, is there something for everyone on our season.
What sort of planning goes into the season building process?
IZ: I started taking conductor availabilities this past summer for the 2024/25 season. My goal is always to get the podium staffing done in the summer and then work with Peter and our guest conductors on building programs in the fall. Every artistic administrator’s goal is to get farther ahead on planning, because the farther ahead we get, the better talent we can bring to our podium. Getting an artist like Marin Alsop means you need to be ahead of the game!
TP: We really start by mapping out when our traditional classical weeks are allocated to the calendar. There are obviously concerts to set as tent poles, but our goal is to make sure our offerings are equitably spaced out throughout the season for our subscribers. We then turn to staffing the podium, working with Peter to understand his availability and we work forward from there. It’s also very important to consider when the chorus is scheduled as they’re a critical part of this institution and their timeline for preparation is not the same as the orchestras. This obviously requires close consultation with our chorus director, Duain Wolfe, as we plan their involvement in the season.
Explain the committee process and how you came to be chair.
NT: Like most internal governance, the musicians have a democratic process to elect members of the various committees. I was honored to be nominated for the artistic committee and I take it as a sign of trust that my colleagues believe I can best represent the musicians while also helping to move the organization forward. I was elected to the Artistic Committee for a three-year term, and in this, my final year of the term, I was elected as the chair and de facto liaison between the musicians and our artistic staff. It’s a big responsibility to take on the workload of being this nexus of communication in addition to my performing duties, but I think it’s incredibly important to do my civic duty for an orchestra I am grateful to perform with every day.
What is the collaborative process like in deciding what will be performed each season and how does the Colorado Symphony’s collaborative process differ from other orchestras?
PO: We have a really excellent process of dialogue between our artistic team and the Artistic Committee. It’s extremely enjoyable because it often feels like we’re planning several wonderful journeys and just talking about the pieces and the programs can be quite inspiring and energizing.
IZ: The Colorado Symphony differs from every other orchestra in that our Artistic Committee has final approval on all of our programming. It makes for more of a process in getting programming done but it does also create buy-in on everything we do. If a musician in the orchestra is frustrated with a program, they bring it to their colleagues at the committee and it is shared with all of us. We keep all of that in mind as we plan the next season.
NT: In a typical situation, there is a three-pronged approach between 1) the conductor, who has strong ideas of what they would like to perform, 2) the artistic staff, who have a better sense of what might work for the specific organization, and 3) the music library, which understands best the logistics of acquiring physical music. Very few orchestras have as much transparency and musician involvement as ours, and I’m grateful for this because it has given me important insight and appreciation for how an orchestra works behind the scenes, as well as a shared pride when the brochure comes out each spring.
What titles are you most looking forward to in the 2023/24 Season?
PO: Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, Christopher Rouse’s profound Sixth Symphony on our Mozart and Now weekend, Mahler Symphony No. 3, Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” and Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony would be at the top, but every single program has its own beauty and enchantment.
NT: An under-the-radar Classics program next year led by the Colorado Symphony debut of conductor Eun Sun Kim includes one of my favorite symphonies in Sibelius’ Second Symphony with Beethoven’s lamentably rarely played Second Piano Concerto, a favorite of mine since my conservatory years, and probably one of the only times I’ll hear such a great soloist play it live. I’m beyond excited to hear our Principal Clarinet, Jason Shafer, as he rips the Corigliano Clarinet Concerto to shreds. I also love dance, so I’m excited for Andrew Litton to bring the New York City Ballet dancers to our stage, and of course, An Alpine Symphony has new meaning for me after seven seasons of Colorado hiking.
IZ: I’m very much looking forward to having Marin Alsop back again to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in what will be a blockbuster weekend for our patrons! I’m also really excited to welcome back Rune Bergmann to the podium after his very successful debut during the 2021/22 Season. Of course, Peter Oundjian is one of the best conductors to work with and I look forward to anything he does but closing the season with An Alpine Symphony will be one to remember!
TP: I’m thrilled that we’re closing the season with An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. For the Centennial Season in the Centennial State, it’s a perfect way to celebrate where this institution is after 100 years of symphonic music.