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

otaku's picture


John Marks's picture


Thanks for your interest. The results are in process, and that process will take a couple or a few more weeks. I do not want to make any snap judgments, so I am researching the many many many unfamiliar pieces, and pondering how this concert versus that concert at that point in the season will pan out in terms of attendance and box office.

Beyond that, it will be a major task to format the winning entries to Stereophile's style sheet, and then I have to write the introductory copy. But the present work is hunting up at least YouTube performances of pieces that are new to me, to John Atkinson, and most of my music-loving friends.

I think that nearly all the entries are interesting, and the potential winners are impressive beyond anything I had hoped for.

So, please be patient.


DepletedZPM's picture


Since I had fun putting together my entry, I wrote up the following note for Facebook friends.  I'd love to see some of the other entrants talk about their approaches to programming their seasons.

Romain Kang, Sunnyvale, California

My season is a geographical cycle beginning and ending in the US.  Each concert has some nation or region as its center of gravity, including at least one living composer and one "party piece" (in my opinion).  Whereas JM's example season employed piano concerti as "tent poles" in his structure, I have given concerti a more ornamental role, leaving just Michael Ching's single-movement piano concerto as representative, with less prominent instruments getting more solo turns.

Bracketing the season are probably the best-known tunes, by John Williams and Aaron Copland; Copland's final movement is built on the famous "Fanfare for the common man", in effect, ennunciating a return home.  I hope the visceral experience of the live orchestra allows the audience to hear these pieces anew.  I got a bit punchy with Concert 1, which has all living American composers named John, in reverse alphabetical order and descending age.

The other programs seem strong enough, though more time to listen, reflect, and revise would have helped.  In particular, the Asia-centered program (Concert 5) was a challenge because I know its composers least, but I felt I could not leave it out.  Choosing a concerto was the most time-consuming task. I would have liked to include Gang Situ's Double concerto for violin and erhu, but could not find a commercial recording.  My first draft put Chen Yi's Percussion concerto in the concerto spot, but timidity got the better of me, so instead there is a violin concerto from Unsuk Chin, a Korean living in Germany.  Also, Tan Dun quotes Beethoven's Third symphony liberally, and could be a disqualifier depending on interpretation of contest rules.

The discipline to leave out material was crucial; I took out an entire French program with some of my choral favorites.  There is both really good stuff and really fun trash in the symphonic world that would have been enjoyable to share.  In the best case, though, you leave the audience wanting more after the final chords have sounded.

Andrei's picture


Congrats at result! I was interested in your Asia-centered program because I also wanted to include non-western music.  I had in mind a concert built around Tan Dun's 'Symphony 1997' or Ravi Shankar's Sitar Concerto.  Like you I felt I could not leave it out - but I did.  Unfortunately the combination of my limited knowledge of asian music and the necessity to make a coherent program meant I just had to give up.  Thanks for your post and I will be looking up those many pieces you mention that are new me.

DepletedZPM's picture

One friend passed the Stereophile lists around her classical music meetup group, and one keen reader noticed that I had a nonexistent piece in my Concert 5.  There is no "American" overture by Borodin -- it's by Prokofiev.  The error is surely a sloppy edit on my part, since I had Borodin's "Polovtsian dances" slotted there in an early draft.  I'm grateful that the editors cut me some slack there!

edbudzil's picture

When browsing the classical music composers catalogue, one will find the S category particularly large. Included in this section is one Stravinsky, Igor. This name is conspicously absent from the Fantasy Season contest. (I didn't enter the contest, so I'm not griping my entry didn't win.) Has Stravinsky's music gone out of fashion? Is his Rite of Spring, which caused the audience to riot during the 1913 premiere, still considered "too modern" 100 years later? I understand why audiophiles would not include the Romantic composers and earlier eras- that music lacks the instrumental color that the French Impressionists and Late Romantic composers brought to orchestral sound. But, c'mon, no Stravinsky? Nary a Firebird, or Rite of Spring to be found???

ptr's picture

from Mr Marks rules:

But to make it more interesting, you can't program works by any of these composers: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, or Wagner. Did you catch the "no Beethoven" part? Good.

Love Stravinsky, but like Mr Marks I belive that he is quite the staple on the concert stage!

Myself, I was quite surprized to be shareing second price!

Did not have a very decided way of structuring my season sugestion. I started out by choosing 7 underplayed works that I dearly would love to hear an orchstra play. Then adding a work that I think would contrast the main work really well, then I strongly belive that every concert should start with a musical Apéritif (i.e an overture) which I added.

Reading back my own season there emerged a red thread with a decent amount of "American" music, wich I feel is under played repertoir around the globe. The nest time the collour oif the fabric might be quite diffrent!

/ptr (in Sweden)