Essay: The delicate art of programming a season

· Mar. 17, 2014, 6:00 am
Photo: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
The cutting-edge Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company offers “An Evening of Movement and Music” employing the talents of students from the Lamont School of Music, which is housed in the Newman Center building.
They must lure in much-needed first-time subscribers and single-ticket buyers, while at the same time keep established audience members engaged -- particularly those who also make generous donations. 
But how? 
A look at newly-announced seasons of the Colorado Symphony, Newman Center Presents and the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) uncovers these organizations’ ongoing struggle to be all things to all people. 
And yet, on closer examination, we can also observe elements of innovation that suggest opportunities for success. 
The Colorado Symphony: Engaging the millennials
The Colorado Symphony's 2014-15 season rounds up the usual orchestral suspects aimed at comfort-seeking audiences (Beethoven’s Ninth, symphonies by Tchaikovsky and Mozart, concertos by Brahms and Dvořák, etc.) and adds some nods to the more adventurous concert-goer. 
For the risk-takers, there’s a smattering of edgy contemporary works by Eric Ewazen, Bill Hill and Kevin Puts, to name a few. 
There’s also an unblushing attempt at courting millennials through a trio of  “Geek Concerts” -- concerts featuring music featured in cartoons, popular video games and Tim Burton movies. 
As part of its quest for fresh blood, the Symphony has become a regular at summertime gigs on the fabled Red Rocks stage, where they serve as back-up band to rock groups and pop singer-songwriters. 
Are these events really supposed to get the kids hooked on classics?
“It’s not realistic to think that you can change their attitude about great music overnight,” Anthony Pierce, the Colorado Symphony’s vice president of artistic administration, says. “But you have to keep chipping away. I’ve read that by 2017, the millennials will be outspending the baby boomers.” 
The eclecticism is admirable -- although the youth push might smack of pandering to some. 
Truth is, most struggling orchestras -- and that means practically all of them -- seem chained to a crazy but necessary potpourri of music that can’t possibly please everyone. This so-called “niche programming” approach may in fact cause head-scratching and eye-rolling among old-school orchestral members. 
How can a symphony organization avoid the appearance of over-reaching in its outreach? 
There’s no denying that the basic concept of an orchestra is so...well...19th Century. And most of the music that’s performed dates back to that bygone era, or earlier. 
Well, not all of it, according to Pierce. “We’re going to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this summer,” Pierce says. “We’ll be accompanying Béla Fleck in his Banjo Concerto. What’s nice is that he’s asked us to play Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. He wants his audience to hear that piece.” 
Back at Boettcher, the upcoming season promises more Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and the rest. 
But sharing the bill will be some brand-new works including an Electric Bass Concerto by Victor Wooten, bass player with Fleck’s virtuosic trio, the Flecktones. That program will also feature the local dance company Wonderbound.
It’s a tricky game, juggling old and new repertory and courting younger audiences without ignoring or offending older ones. 
But Pierce is up to the challenge. 
And, he adds, so are the Symphony players, some of whom are members of the season-planning artistic committee. 
“This is all pushing us toward the tipping point of relevancy,” Pierce says.
As for comparing symphonic offerings, the CSO's wooing of the young is nothing new -- every orchestra, and theater program, for that matter -- craves new audiences, and endeavors to serve up the hip and new. Their success is likely due more to demographics and marketing than programming choices. That said, there probably aren't too many mini-series labeled "Geek Concerts" around the country.
Newman Center Presents: Serving eclectic tastes
Next season’s line-up at the Newman Center’s Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus promises similarly diverse programming. 
Those who’ve followed the series since its beginnings in 2003 have come to expect that sort of thing. 
The new season looks lively -- bold, even. It may even offer a glimpse into the potential future of performing arts programming. 
Even a casual glance at the Newman’s 19 events reveals a head-spinning range of offerings. 
There’s a pops feel to the two opening acts: mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile paired with double-bass star Edgar Meyer, followed by a “Speakeasy Nights” concert featuring the jazzy combo Hot Sardines.
But what comes next is all over the map: the political comedy troupe Capitol Steps, the amazing Swiss mask-and-mime company Mummenschanz and a night of serious classical music with the Colorado Symphony and famed violinist Pinchas Zukerman. 
Also, an inviting theme in the Newman line-up is artistic collaboration. 
The cutting-edge Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company offers “An Evening of Movement and Music” employing the talents of students from the Lamont School of Music, which is housed in the Newman Center building. 
Another group that embraces the avant-garde, the musical group Alarm Will Sound, shares the stage with the jazz/funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood. 
Later on, the experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth appears with members of the Colorado Symphony. After that, the Donal Fox Inventions Trio, blends jazz with Baroque favorites.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is a late-season performance connected to the anti-bullying project, “It Gets Better,” in which members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, fresh off of in-school workshops at Denver schools, appear with an ad-hoc local chorus and the ensemble Speak Theater Arts. 
This eclectic approach to programing offers the potential for group energy and spontaneity that is sorely needed in the performing arts. 
The latest Newman Center offerings are consistent with that series over the years. A quick look at the archives reveals a wide range of offerings.
But such diversity is not unique to these parts.
UCLA's performing arts program has a similarly long, colorful history, as do many major universities, notably Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. 
The forward-thinking programming philosophy, executive director Stephen Seifert says, is consciously chosen. 
“Our approach fits in with the overall mission of the University of Denver -- to stretch boundaries,” Seifert says. “We looked around and said, ‘What can we add to the cultural scene in Denver?’ And it seems to be working. We have a core audience of subscribers who like to sample things.”
Denver Center Theatre Company: Balancing chestnuts with premieres
The DCTC’s upcoming season serves up a blend of new stuff and old. 
Acknowledged with a Regional-Theatre Tony Award in 1998, the DCTC continues to stand comfortably with the likes of such revered institutions as Chicago's Goodman Theater and Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre. 
There is, inescapably, “A Christmas Carol” once again, and a safe choice in  “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Meredith Willson’s musical that immortalizes one of Denver’s most famous citizens. 
But there are also plenty of novelties. 
Even the Willson production promises some unexpected treats, utilizing a new book by Dick Scanlan (co-creator of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and some newly adapted songs by Willson. 
If you want really fresh productions, there’s an adaptation of William Golding’s kids-gone-bad novel “Lord of the Flies,” Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (an absurdist work that won the 2013 best-play Tony a pair of premieres), James Still’s “Appoggiatura” (recently seen at the Colorado New Play Summit), Eric Schmiedl’s “Benediction” and Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami…,” an imagined hotel-room gathering between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown.
Neither the Colorado Symphony nor Newman Center Presents can match the DCTC in the percentage of hot-off-the-press newness. 
But then, theater-goers expect a healthy dose of premieres from this company. 
Learn more about the 2014-15 season schedules:

Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.

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