Fantasy Symphony Competition: The Results Are In!

The results are in! This has been by far my best reader write-in competition ever. The notion of putting together an entire symphony-orchestra season without one single work from any of the Top 12 most popular composers prompted some intensely creative thinking! I was knocked out by the quality of the winning entries-and so was John Atkinson. Indeed, all the entries were interesting, provocative, or both. Please don't feel bad if you didn't win a prize; the level of competitiveness was the highest yet.

As the entries came in, I gave each one individual consideration. I provisionally assigned each entry to a file folder. The folders ran from Likely Winner through Possible Winner to Not Likely, in five increments total. Once all the entries were in, I reviewed the contents of each folder, comparing all the entries within that folder with each other, and then to the folders above and below. In the event, I made very few adjustments. The top folder had eight entries, and the next one down had eight as well. Therefore, choosing the winners was a matter of reconfirming that all the entries in the top folder belonged there, and then choosing the four strongest entries from the next folder down.

As advertised, my judging was entirely subjective. However, I tried to be as fair as I could in judging the entries only by my stated criteria. In other words, the competition was not about creating different possible John Marks' Ideal Symphony Seasons. The competition was about creating intriguing programs that would attract, entertain, and enlighten real-world symphony audiences.

As examples, I think that Berlioz' music is in large part over-rated. I find most of Berlioz' best-known music (with the exceptions of his viola concerto Harold in Italy and the song cycle Nuits d'été), to be contrived and bombastic. However, I recognize both Berlioz' importance in music history, and certainly that he has his fans. People pay good money to hear Berlioz' barn-burners. I did not disqualify or downgrade entries just because most Berlioz is not my cup of tea. Perhaps not entirely similarly (in that I have a lot more respect for Bruckner as a composer than I do for Berlioz-Bruckner's motets are for me some of the loveliest music ever written), I find Bruckner's symphonies to be long, brass-plated Stairways to Heaven. Again, I tried to keep my personal preferences out, and judge on a level playing field. Indeed, just about every entry that won a prize lists at least one piece that is, to some extent, just not my cup of tea.

The other side of the judging coin is that when I suspected that the inclusion of one or more pieces was an effort to "butter me up," I was less enthusiastic about that entry. That said, there are winning lists that include some pieces I have mentioned over the years as among my favorites. I decided on the basis of context-how that piece fit into the evening, and that evening into the season. In choosing winners, I was looking for freshness and creativity without weirdness, and the ability to fill the seats with paying customers without dumbing down or selling out.

As luck would have it, at the exact time I was getting ready to make the final determinations, John Atkinson arrived to pick me up for our trip to a dealer event at Fidelis AV in Derry, New Hampshire, so I brought along my file folder of printouts of the possible winners. As JA drove the interstates of New England, I read each entry in turn, and we discussed them. At one point, JA marveled, "Where do our readers learn about these composers?", conjecturing that people could only have become familiar with the works from recorded performances. JA later remarked that while it is one thing for a list to have lots of pieces he had never heard of, such as Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, it's another to have a list with lots of composers he had never heard of-such as Joly Braga Santos, who was new to us both.

Discussing the finalists with JA helped clarify why I had perhaps ranked one or two entries a little higher than they deserved-I was a bit too concerned about accessibility and crowd appeal. JA's reactions also indicated that one or two entries were stronger than I had thought at first. After a few more shuffles, on the trip back to Rhode Island, I ran through the list again, specifically asking JA to break a tie for last place. After going over those two entries carefully, JA agreed that it was a genuine tie, and he authorized me to give an additional prize, so there are 13 winners. Preparing this web update, I resolved my difficulty in precisely ranking the first four winners by declaring two-way ties for first and second places.

I also decided to give a personal prize for Courageous Programming to an entry I had rejected as a prizewinner because it consisted of too many challenging works, with few "life preservers" for apprehensive subscribers to cling to. Also, the season included too many long works that took up entire evenings. My concern was that if a subscriber didn't like a certain composer's style (and couldn't be educated by the orchestra's persistent and creative corporate communications to admit the possibility they will miss out on something great), if there is only one work for the entire evening, they will stay home. My personal prize in this case is a copy of my "Producer Reel" CDR, or a selection of hi-res downloads of my recent recording work.

My colleague the violinist Arturo Delmoni, who is Concertmaster of the New York City Ballet, and who has also conducted hundreds of orchestral performances of symphonies, operas, and ballets, submitted a fantasy season on an hors-concours basis. Had someone else sent it in, it should have been a contender.

I was able to locate CDs, sound bytes, or YouTube videos of nearly all the pieces submitted. I found YouTube to be a tremendous resource. Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to the winners. I will have some additional comments and a bit of statistical analysis in my column in the August issue.

If you care about orchestra music, here is my plea to you: Please print out the list of the winning seasons and mail it (or email it) with your personal note to the General Manager of your local symphony, even if that symphony is only an academic or community ensemble. My dream is that these lists "go viral" and have a real impact in changing the torpid and jejune programming too many orchestras cling to, apparently from fear that their audiences need constant repetition of short playlists of the "greatest hits."—John Marks

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