DAD intern, and music student at Wheaton College, Johanna Fleisher recently sat down with Dallas Symphony Orchestra head of Operations Department, Mark Melson, to learn about his work and how DSO has artistically changed over the years. The DSO has been an integral part of the Dallas Arts District for many years and continues to makes plans for bringing art and music to the Dallas community.
How did you begin your career in arts administration and later with the DSO?
I’ve always loved classical music and I played a number of instruments as a kid an in high school, but I didn’t think I was really good enough to be a professional musician. My major was journalism, and I was a newspaper reporter for a while after college, and then a music critic. I got interested (while I was working with one of the local orchestras) in orchestra management, and I decided to make a clean break and go to the American Symphony Orchestra League’s Orchestra Management Training Program and then I started in this field…I’ve been at the Dallas Symphony since 1985.
What kinds of things do you do on a day to day basis at the DSO?
The department that I oversee is in charge of concert production. We don’t sell tickets. We don’t raise money. We present concerts and everything that implies. That begins with scheduling the orchestra, reserving the hall, or whatever other venue we play in. We manage tours. I’ve manage three European tours for the Dallas Symphony, five trips to Carnegie Hall, [and] concerts in Asia and Mexico…We assist in choosing repertoire and guest artists for many of the concerts. We book many of the guest artists, negotiate fees, and sign the contacts. We take care of them when they’re here-hotels, transportation and all of those sorts of things. We oversee a lot of performance equipment, pianos [and] the organ. We liaise with the Meyerson and work with them. We decide where the acoustical setting will be for any given rehearsal or concert. We negotiate record contracts, national production,[and] anything that has to do with putting a concert on.
What do you find most rewarding/challenging about your job?
The most rewarding thing is going to the concerts and hearing this great orchestra, the many different conductors and soloists, and a wide variety of repertoire. The tours are often the most rewarding, although they’re absolutely the hardest work. But, to hear the orchestra in London, Vienna, and Berlin, and many other cities and hear them cheered and applauded, just gives you a nice warm feeling inside.
In what ways do you and the DSO try to reach out to the Dallas community?
Well we’re in a period right now where we’re doing a lot of community concerts. We do ‘Parks Concerts’ for the city of Dallas. We do six of those a year in various parks…We also do a concert for the Latino community and also for the African American community. We do those at the Meyerson. We have a huge educational outreach. We do 24 youth concerts here at the hall and school kids are bussed in for those. We send ensembles to the schools to perform. We also have this wonderful program called Young Strings where members of the orchestra teach kids who normally would not be able to afford music lessons. We teach string instruments to these Latino and African American students. Many of them have gone on to major conservatories and get into music professionally.
The Meyerson Symphony Center has been an important part of the DSO’s history. How has it impacted the orchestra and other artists who come to perform in Dallas?
First of all, and this is not just hometown cheerleading, this is one of the greatest halls in the world. Architecturally it’s fascinating and beautiful, but acoustically it’s really special. Symphony orchestras play in halls acoustically without amplification in most cases…So the hall itself has to be an instrument, and this is a fabulous one! I’ve heard concert halls all over the country and all over the world, and I’ve heard our orchestra in many of these other halls, and I can never get back here soon enough…I just love hearing the sound of the orchestra in the hall.
You’ve been through 3 different musical directors since you started working with the DSO, Eduardo Mata, Andrew Litton, and Jaap van Zweden. How have these transitions impacted your work and the DSO as a whole?
The orchestra and its repertoire tend to reflect the music director himself and the music director’s wishes and tastes. All three of these conductors conducted a really broad repertoire-a wide spectrum. Eduardo was probably the leading champion of music by Latino composers, and Dallas was known for that when Eduardo was music director. Andrew Litton was a terrific player and conductor of Gershwin, Shostakovich and Mahler… Then he had this outgoing, warm personality that reached out across the footlights that people liked. [He] was a good ambassador for us. Jaap van Zweden, [is] more European [and] very intense. He does a little bit more contemporary music by European composers than the other two music directors, but he also has a very wide repertoire. He, also, has extremely high standards and he works everyone, orchestra and staff. [It’s] very hard to meet his standards and his view of what this orchestra should be doing. ‘Intensity’ would probably be the word for Jaap.
In what ways has the DSO expanded it’s repertoire over the years? What kinds of audiences has the organization been catering to?
Well, the repertoire has always been very broad. We try to keep a nice balance on the classical side between the new and the traditional, between the familiar and the unfamiliar. We have an obligation to introduce some new music to audiences, but also an obligation to program a lot of the pieces that they know and love. It’s a balancing act…We have two main series, the Classical Series and the Pops Series and they both have different audiences. We also play concerts for the Latino and African American communities, lots of concerts for school children, and we do this big series, these 12 Christmas concerts, every year which somehow brings a whole new audience. So, there are a bunch of different audiences and I just hope it keeps growing.
How do you feel that the expansion of the Dallas Arts District has affected the DSO and the Dallas community as a whole?
You know, when we moved here, (and I was here for the groundbreaking)in 1985, the Meyerson Symphony Center was an island. I mean, we were surrounded by parking lots or open lots, or unfinished constructions sights. The Cathedral [Santuario de Guadalupe] has always been across the street, so that was the one building nearby, but we were just surrounded by a lot of unfinished or not yet begun things. Now, we’re part of a real arts district. We’ve got buildings next door, and buildings across the street, and there’s still a few parking lots, but we’ve got this high rise luxury hotel going up a block over. So, I think it will attract and has already attracted more people just coming down here. If we can get some more restaurants and more shops, maybe a DART rail closer to the Arts District, this is going to be a happening place with lots of people.