Composer-pianist-conductor Leonard Bernstein once said there is no serious or unserious music, only good and bad music.
The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra will demonstrate that maxim this month, presenting both Masterworks (classical) concerts and Pops (contemporary) concerts—to wit, the music of masters Stravinsky, Debussy and Richard Strauss, as well as a tribute to pop icon Barbra Streisand.
There is something unusual in HSO’s playing of Igor Stravinsky. Often, when orchestras play “The Firebird”—the breakthrough piece by the Russian composer, written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes—they serve up not the entire work but the shorter “Suite” based on it.
But, when HSO sits down on March 18 and 19 to perform “The Firebird,” it’ll be the full ballet, just as Stravinsky created it.
“That’s 45 minutes long,” said Jeff Woodruff, the orchestra’s executive director.
“The piece marked the beginning of the revolution period of modern music, showing a new way of composing,” said Woodruff. “It’s beautifully colorful.”
Also on the program that day: Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration.”
For something entirely different, HSO will offer one of its “Pops” concerts in March, as the orchestra accompanies Ann Hampton Callaway singing from the songbook of Barbra Streisand—vocalist, songwriter, actress and filmmaker.
“Music is a big tent—a lot fits in,” Woodruff said of the orchestra’s diverse programming. “But, ultimately, we try to be faithful and true to the [classical] orchestral world.”
That said, HSO tends to focus on more recent works, even for classical music concerts.
“There are thousands of pieces we could play, but we don’t play works much before the 18th century,” Woodruff said. “We do a lot of 20th-century pieces.”
The orchestra’s wide repertoire for its “Masterworks” concerts encompasses symphonic music and concertos, as well as suites for operas and ballets. The traditional format of these concerts is a large-scale work, usually with a soloist, and a shorter piece, such as an overture or symphonic poem, typically encompassing 80 minutes of music.
The “Pops” concert series has a completely different focus, featuring Broadway tunes, Hollywood film scores, ensembles like the Canadian Brass, and special events, such as a “Tribute to Star Wars” and a Disney program.
“Stuart [Malina, HSO’s music director and conductor] presents a variety of music, a sampling of various periods and styles,” Woodruff said.
The decisions about programming are made by Malina, with some input from staff and the Artistic Advisory Committee. And, of course, as with any other cultural institution, budget plays a part.
Only about one-third of the orchestra’s revenue comes from box office. The rest of the $2.7 million budget has to be raised.
The “Pops” series is much more recent than the birth of the orchestra; it goes back to the early-90s, “at the end of the Larry Newland era,” said Woodruff, referring to a former music conductor.
Although there is some overlap between audiences of the “Masterworks” and “Pops” series, the latter brings in people who generally are not attracted to the classical offerings and want to hear more-contemporary pieces.
“Most orchestras are doing something like the ‘Pops’ series to broaden the funding base and diversify the audiences,” he added. “We cater to people with a range and variety of tastes.”
Another difference is that “Masterworks” concerts are introduced by pre-concert talks—which are part of the orchestra’s educational activities—while “Pops” concerts are not.
Another significant part of the HSO is the very active Youth Symphony for high school students and the all-string ensemble of middle schoolers. These are volunteer orchestras, although one has to audition to be accepted.
HSO itself is fully professional, with players part of the American Federation of Musicians. Most live outside of the Harrisburg area, drawing from the major metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington and New York.
“It will be a special season: Stuart’s 20th season, the orchestra’s 90th and the 30th of the Harrisburg Symphony Society (a group of volunteers who support HSO),” Woodruff said.
Aside from all those milestones, there is something to celebrate—the orchestra “keeps getting better and better,” he said.
“Ann Hampton Callaway Sings the Barbra Streisand Songbook” runs March 4 and 5 at The Forum, N. 5th and Walnut streets, Harrisburg. The “March Masterworks Concert” runs March 18 to 19, also at the Forum. For more information on both concerts, visit www.harrisburgsymphony.org or call 717-545-5527.
Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra March Events
Ann Hampton Callaway Sings the Barbra Streisand Songbook
The Forum, Harrisburg
March 4, 8 p.m.
March 5, 3 p.m.
“Stuart & Friends”
Annual Chamber Music Concert
Gamut Theatre, Harrisburg
March 15, 7:30 p.m.
“The Art of Personal Style”
New Style Fashion Show
Hershey Lodge, Hershey
March 16, 11 a.m.
“March Masterworks Concert”
The Forum, Harrisburg
March 18, 8 p.m.
March 19, 3 p.m.