Selecting repertoire for student orchestras is subjective and controversial.
Some conductors prefer to program a wide range of music, including numerous contemporary pieces, concertos, and music by composers on the fringe of the mainstream. I disagree with this approach. Music students must become grounded in fundamental principles and techniques of orchestra playing—a lengthy and challenging process. They must be schooled in music that best allows them to learn the skills they will need as professional musicians. These goals are not accomplished when music directors’ egos or the public’s preferences drive repertoire decisions.
The repertoire that most effectively provides these lessons includes selected symphonies by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, and, to a lesser extent, appropriate works by Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Shostakovich.
Failure to program core repertoire is less a problem than programming music that taxes the musicians’ endurance, creates potential for injury (especially with string players), necessitates too much practice time, and undermines group morale.
If a football coach imposes a thick and complex playbook upon his players, then penalties, injuries, losses, and bickering are inevitable. Comparable damage is done to young musicians by thoughtless conductors and administrators who schedule programs that are too long, too demanding for the strings, and daunting and intimidating for the woodwinds and brass. These people are setting up the orchestra to fail.
It’s naïve to think that young and inexperienced musicians can monitor their complex and demanding schedules and can effectively allocate appropriate time and energy for study, practice, part-time employment, and recreation. Having Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman, and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony waiting for them in the practice room is quickly demoralizing and a recipe for physical and psychological damage. Doing a few things at a very high level is more productive than giving players more to do than they can manage.
Young musicians must understand what they are playing and become sensitive to sound and blend and phrasing. Intelligent repertoire selection will go a long way in accomplishing this. There is much wonderful and inspiring orchestra music written by the masters that is deeply rewarding and eminently challenging to play, and it’s much better to construct programs that can be well prepared and performed at a high level, that expose the students to the classical music canon, and that create pride in the ensemble.