Programming for classical orchestra is not what it used to be.
The typical overture, concerto, symphony layout is being transformed into programs with themes, and concerts entirely consisting of dead composers from the 1800s are triumphantly being replaced by the music of our time.
Conductor Devin Patrick Hughes is at the forefront of creating orchestra programs that not only promote diversity but celebrate it. He has partnered with living composers over a decades-long career, initiating composer-in-residence programs, and founding ensembles that exist to give new voices platforms to showcase their skills.
Over the course of the pandemic, Hughes created online music productions and doubled down on bringing new music to life by highlighting, commissioning, and performing music by up-and-coming voices such as Elizabeth Comninellis, Edgar Girtain, Hannah Kendall, Jesse Montgomery, Anna Clyne, Caroline Shaw, Conni Ellisor, and John Clay Allen, to more well known living composers like Barbara Harbach, Philip Glass, Thea Musgrave, Gregory Walker, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Max Richter.
“Presenting symphonic concerts in a post-pandemic world is an exciting challenge,” Hughes shared. “It’s similar to a four or five-course meal. There have to be familiar tastes, along with something a bit more exotic that will surprise and delight you. The difference with music is that we like to mix flavors, styles, and cultures all in one meal!”
Catching up with Hughes, who has been busy creating a discovery concert for students with the Arapahoe Philharmonic, a benefit concert for the victims of the Marshal Fire with the Boulder Symphony, and conducting interviews for his podcast One Symphony, which amplifies the voices of composers, performers, and other musical entrepreneurs breaking boundaries, I asked him about his upcoming program in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“The Las Cruces Symphony program is a fun example of bringing diversity to the concert stage. Within the ‘Dance’ theme we will explore a plethora of colors and cultures.” Starting with the ballet Estancia by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, composed in the 1940s and exploring the life of the gauchos, or cowboys on cattle ranches in the Pampas, “the music is taken from South American folk dances called malambos and has an enticing three against two effects which pulls us into the worlds of the farmers and celebrates the open plains.”
Also on the program is a distinguished American composer and Las Cruces resident Barbara Harbach. Harbach spent her career as a performer, professor, creator of symphonies, operas, string orchestra works, musicals, chamber music, silent film scores, ballets, and much more. For decades she has been a trailblazing advocate for women in the arts. Maestro Hughes and the Las Cruces Symphony will perform Harbach’s Lilia Polka. “Lilia Polka is a transcription of a composition by the intrepid American author Kate Chopin, written for her daughter to play on the piano around 1900. Barbara has arranged the music for both woodwind quintet and string orchestra, and we’ll perform the latter,” Hughes said.
To complement these wonderful works by artists of the Americas, the steak and potatoes section of the program returns to the classics. “Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is one of the most vivacious and boisterous works in the repertoire. During the premiere in 1813, the audience was so in love with the second movement that they forced the orchestra to repeat it numerous times, through applause. That’s a great way to keep the music playing, just keep clapping!” Hughes also doesn’t think the old rules of classical music apply. “I think if you’re moved, you should treat it like a jazz concert. The audience is an integral part of what we do, and especially having moved through the pandemic, I will never take our audiences for granted again. They are part of the performance and should feel free to express themselves, even between movements.”
Rounding out the program are the Dances of Galanta by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. “The Dances were written as a tribute to the town where the composer grew up, which was no longer a part of his homeland after World War 1. In addition to creating brilliant dances in the Romani style, Kodály was a music educator, and collector of folk music before it disappeared through globalization.”
Along with Bela Bartok, another great Hungarian composer, Kodály brought to the world modes, scales, styles, and rhythms from the undiscovered regions of Romania, Hungary, and other cultures of Eastern Europe before their cultures started to fade away. “The Hungarian style influenced Western music across the centuries, from Haydn and Mozart all the way to Liszt and Brahms and into the twentieth century. It is so rich in feeling, expression, and musical possibilities. I am so excited to bring this work to life in Las Cruces!”
Diversity comes in many forms, and it’s very refreshing to see orchestras and other cultural organizations taking the lead to showcase the rich tapestry of classical music across the globe. Tickets start at $43 for March 12 and 13.