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Ward Stare reflects on RPO’s 2015-16 season 

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's 2015-2016 season was Ward Stare's first year to program as the orchestra's music director -- he officially took over the position in September 2014, and led several concerts during that season, but its programming had already been set. And this season was, by artistic and financial standards, a success.

Stare's musicality and podium expertise have received a strong response from the orchestra, which played outstandingly this year, as well as from the RPO audience: the organization recently announced its first increase in subscription sales since 2007-08, and also announced that single ticket sales increased considerably last year, totaling $1.68 million.

The orchestra broadened its repertoire under its Rochester-born conductor; classic and new American works, and such major pieces (some rarely performed by the RPO) as Strauss's "EinHeldenleben," Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," and Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariane" all appeared on this season's programming.

Last month, City met with Stare to get his thoughts on many aspects of his first full programming year as a new music director, and his plans for the RPO's 2016-17 season, which include an American music festival and a concert performance of Puccini's "La Bohème." An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

City: Can you talk about your goals and expectations as you came into the job? The overall sound of the orchestra, the repertoire, the orchestra's relation to its audience, etc.

Ward Stare: I had multiple goals, the most important of which was developing a relationship with my orchestra and our sound together. But I also wanted to develop the relationship between the community and me, and with the organization as a whole. I was thinking about breaking down barriers, bringing new people in, getting them excited about classical music again. And I think we did pretty well. You've probably seen the announcement about the RPO's increased ticket sales. And contrary to national trends, our subscriptions sales are up. People are coming back who had stopped subscribing, and I think that's fantastic.

I wanted to try expanding the repertoire by including pieces the orchestra hadn't done for a while. For example, Saint-Saëns's "Bacchanale" -- everybody knows it, and it's a great piece, but when I went back in the orchestra's history, I found it had not been performed since the 1940's. When I saw that I said, "We're bringing that back." Also the Albert Roussel "Bacchus et Ariane" suite, which was brand new to the RPO.

Orchestrally speaking, things really started to get interesting after January: We did the new Aaron Kernis flute concerto with Marina Piccinini; two new pieces by young American composers [Patrick Harlin's "Rapture" and Stephanie Berg's "Ravish and Mayhem"]; and two Bartók piano concertos with Yuja Wang, one of which is hardly ever played. After the first part of the season, I felt we'd had our basic repertoire down and could start stepping out more.

The Kernis flute concerto is a very complicated score, and something of a risk for us as it had just been premiered. I remember how hard I had to work to learn it, and I was so proud on the first day of rehearsal to find the orchestra so prepared. From that very first rehearsal, we could shape phrases and make music. Both Aaron and Marina were there, of course, and were over the moon about it.

It was the same with Yuja Wang's performance. Here were two concertos the orchestra hadn't played in the recent past, with a world-class soloist -- everyone had to be on their game. It speaks well for the orchestra that she felt comfortable asking for that. Yuja thanked me for agreeing to do the Bartók First Concerto, saying "You have no idea how hard it is to get a conductor to do this piece; it is really hard and it needs like six rehearsals." And I said, "Well, we're up to the challenge."

Are there certain sections of the orchestra in which you've a seen a change in sound?

The string section has opened out a lot. The "engagement factor" decreases with players' distance, so your conducting has to be more intense to engage musicians sitting 20 or 30 feet away from you. I have noticed in the big climactic moments of some of the pieces we've done that the string section sounds fuller. [Former RPO Music Director] Christopher Seaman told me, "Wow, the sound is really opening up; I can feel it. It's your orchestra now. It's no longer my orchestra."

The string section has a kind of intuitive cohesion. It also seems that that brass sound has tightened up. Could that be due to your background as a trombonist?

My idea of an orchestra's sound is that it's built from the bottom up, in a kind of sonic pyramid. The lowest instruments, the basses and the low brass -- the bass line has to have clarity. On top of that, you can have a broader, singing, more even tone. The highest, most penetrating instruments are the cherry on top of the cake, but I still have to get them to hold back to create a richer and more complex sound.

It's mostly a lot of subtle balance things. There are always things you want to work on. I often ask for more from the violas, the trombones, the lower horns, the English horn, to create a richer sound. I'll tell instruments like the first violins and trumpet, or the percussion, they have the advantage of register, and need to back off at times. If the sound is not full enough, I will ask for more from the second violins, less from the firsts. This is all part of the music director's job: cultivating the orchestra's sound identity.

Do you find anything problematic about Kodak Hall's acoustics? Any aspects that you need to keep in mind as you conduct?

I am still learning the hall. We sometimes have difficulty hearing each other on the stage, and I realize that some things I hear on the podium are not what the listener in the hall hears. It's a matter of isolating those things in rehearsals and working on them.

When we have a guest conductor, I try to sit in various places in the hall and listen, to see what the differences might be. I do know that the sound in Kodak Hall can be dramatically different depending on where you sit. That may not be unusual among concert halls, but it needs to be considered.

How does the orchestra's musical identity evidence itself in repertoire? For example, I was struck by the number of times Samuel Barber appeared this season, and I wonder if you thought his kind of romantic lyricism paralleled the way the orchestra was coming together.

All those things. I've always loved Barber's music, and I've conducted it often. And in its rich texture and its detail, it does play to the RPO's strengths as well as to things we want to work on. His First Symphony, for example, does everything a Mahler symphony does in 20 minutes -- it's a complete workout for the orchestra.

Are there any composers in next season's lineup whom you feel are underrepresented?

Well, next season is about American music -- not just in the American Music Festival, but throughout the season. We want to highlight the diversity in American music, from Charles Ives, which is of course very old, to works having their premieres. Other countries have been melting pots, but I think American music is more diverse than any national genre. This orchestra can play a sensational pops concert or a great jazz concert, and I thought that ability went hand-in-glove with American music.

In looking at American composers you've programmed, such as Barber and Alan Hovhaness, I'm sure you're aware that many of their works were originally performed and recorded here in Rochester.

Absolutely. If you look at the list of artists who have played in Rochester over the years, and the number of premieres, it's astounding. Rochester was an epicenter of activity in American music for a long time.

Do you see this festival as an annual thing or a regular feature of the RPO's programming?

I don't think we'll continue with a three-weekend festival each year; we have only so many weeks a year and there are lots of things I want to do. American music is near and dear to my heart, so it will always be part of my programming. When I saw what a great job the orchestra did with the Kernis flute concerto, I knew they were ready to tackle another really hard American piece like the John Adams "Doctor Atomic Symphony," or the Copland Third Symphony. I hadn't hesitated before, but that was a nice affirmation.

I think by the end of the season, the orchestra really coalesced on a new level -- in the core rep like "EinHeldenleben," then building on that in another difficult piece, the Rachmaninoff "Symphonic Dances," and then in the Kernis and the Bartók concertos, and the new American works.

We thought the Beethoven Fourth Symphony was also extremely well done.

That was on the same concert as the Kernis flute concerto. It was a case of: "Oh, if I had 15 more minutes in rehearsal, I could have fixed up this and this and this..." But if you have a good, very engaged orchestra, a conductor can keep working even during the performance. I thought that piece ended up in a very good space by the end of the week.

For next season, you've also scheduled an opera in concert, "La Bohème." I know you're also an experienced opera conductor. Do you plan to do this regularly?

A couple of years ago, you'll remember, we did "La Traviata" for one night only. The demand for opera in Rochester is strange: There's a small group that loves it and will go to see everything, and then there's a large audience that doesn't know much about it and tends to stay away. We ended up with 1,500 or 1,700 people, which we thought was very good, and the audience loved it. So I decided, this is something we'll do regularly and we'll plan ahead from here on out. We'd received funds specifically for opera and dance collaborations, but we couldn't find a date that worked in '15-16, so we made sure there was a slot in '16-17.

It often seems like there is a subtle through-line in your programming: you not only want to find an original way to connect the audience to the music, but also want to recalibrate its tastes. Do you feel you've gained the RPO audience's trust and that your 2017-18 season will be even more adventurous?

We're just beginning. But after this season I can say that things are going as I'd hoped they would. The idea is to ratchet things up gradually without turning anyone off, so people can hear music that's new to them and realize they like it. The Bartók First Piano Concerto, people told me they loved it, ditto with the Kernis Flute Concerto and Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariane." That's a great indicator, and I'd like to have a longer list of new pieces like that each season.

Building that kind of trust takes a few years. I think of Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco: he has definitely built that trust with his audience, and they'll accept whatever he wants to do. But it took him 20 years of hard work.

It seems that it's not just about programming new or old music, but the way you program them. For example, the concert which ended with Strauss's "Four Last Songs" was very moving - not really like any concert I'd ever heard. [The RPO's March 17 and 19 concert program consisted of Patrick Harlin's "Rapture," Barber's First Symphony, Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs" -- a emotional progression from violent distress to serenity in the face of death.]

Of all the programs we did this year, I think I am most proud of that. "Four Last Songs" rarely close a program; Erin Wall, the soprano who sang them with us, said she'd never done them at the end of a concert before. Usually they close the first half of a concert. But I find that if you do these songs right, you don't really want to hear anything else afterwards.

The way I put the program together, the whole concert built to the songs -- from the extremes of emotion in the Harlin and Barber works, to the serenity of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia and even more so in the Strauss. It all made sense in my brain, but it was wonderful to see it work in the concert.

We want to ask about your working relationship with RPO President and CEO Ralph Craviso. What's the dynamic like between financial goals and creative goals? Where is that moving?

I'm really pleased to be working with Ralph and pleased he renewed his commitment to us. He is the architect of our five-year financial plan. I take care of the artistic side, being mindful of fiscal responsibility, and he takes care of the operational and financial side. Artistically I think we're doing great; the financial side needs a lot more work, though I am very happy with our progress there, too. And I think our success artistically buoys our finances. My job is to make the music work to reach those goals.

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