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Phoenix Symphony Blockbuster Season

Five-dollar vocab of the day: interregnum.

It’s the time between kings, when the throne sits empty. Historically, it has meant endless opportunity for intrigue, betrayal and beheadings.

But don’t expect any HBO-worthy drama at the Phoenix Symphony, which kicks off a new season next weekend without music director Michael Christie, who stepped down last spring after accepting the conducting job at Minnesota Opera.

The popular maestro, who was just 31 when he took the baton, left after eight years with plenty to crow about. He raised the level of musicianship and broadened the orchestra’s repertoire to feature contemporary composers from around the world. And, not to put too fine a point on it, he put “cheeks in seats,” helping to raise attendance from 50 percent capacity at Symphony Hall to 75 percent over the past few years.

Phoenix Symphony President and CEO Jim Ward, who engineered a fiscal turnaround after he was hired in 2010, is keen to keep that momentum going, even though the search for Christie’s replacement could take another year or more. So the state’s largest performing-arts company has put together a season of “Big Names and Big Music” to generate excitement at the box office.

And: “You can’t start off any bigger than John Williams and Steven Spielberg,” Ward says.

The famed film composer and director will team up for a blockbuster fundraiser (with blockbuster prices topping out at $500 a ticket) on Saturday, Sept. 28.

Also on tap this season are superstar pianists Lang Lang and Emanuel Ax. On the pops side of things, the orchestra will back Broadway stars Audra McDonald and the Midtown Men — the original cast of “Jersey Boys.”

Even the family series spotlights such brand-name entertainment as “Halloween at Hogwarts,” featuring music from the “Harry Potter” movies, and Lemony Snicket’s “The Composer Is Dead,” a kiddie symphony from the author of the bestselling “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

It all starts Friday, Sept. 20, with a season-opening performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its famous “Ode to Joy” chorus. It’s the first of many familiar masterpieces in the Classics series, including Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem (conducted by Christie in one of three return appearances) and the granddaddy of them all, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Wielding the baton for the latter will be JoAnn Falletta, a veteran maestro who has accepted the position of principal guest conductor for the year. She may not be as famous as Spielberg, but within the orchestra world, she’s a household name. The native New Yorker has won numerous awards, and as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, she has restored a once-great symphony to international prominence.

“JoAnn is beyond well-regarded in the industry. She’s a legend,” Ward says. “She’s a woman in what can be and traditionally has been a man’s world, and yet she has commanded the greatest orchestras across the country. She has wonderful longevity and perspective.”

Falletta was a candidate for the music director’s chair back in 2005 and is likely on the short list this time around as well. In the coming season, she will conduct Lang Lang in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in October as well as four more concerts in 2014.

She says her job description as principal guest conductor is to provide continuity over the course of the year.

“Orchestras are very dependent on their music directors for so many decisions and so much of the flavor and personality of what’s happening,” she says. “All of the sudden welcoming many guest conductors in is exciting, but sometimes it’s helpful to just have someone who can answer questions, who can make some decisions within certain parameters that will help the orchestra.”

Falletta had a hand in choosing the repertoire for the 2013-14 season, which at first glance appears to be a bit of a greatest-hits collection but actually includes a number of left-field surprises.

“The first thing I did was actually look at the past decade of seasons and try to find composers that hadn’t been done a great deal, try to find some pieces that for some reason had fallen through the cracks,” she says.

“There are some unusual things like the Suk ‘Fairy Tale,’ which probably no one has played there. Josef Suk was Dvorak’s son-in-law, and this is an incredible piece of music. Or the Shostakovich ‘Gadfly Suite,’ again probably not too well known. And some pieces just for some reason hadn’t been down. (Richard) Strauss’ ‘Rosenkavalier’ hadn’t been done for a long time. So I tried to find pieces that the orchestra would be excited about playing.”

Pleasing the players, she says, is key to pleasing the audience.

“Conducting an orchestra is not about the conductor, it’s about the musicians,” she says. “It’s not about what I’m doing with them. It’s about my listening to them and creating an environment where they can excel. Always keeping my ears open and leading them and following them interchangeably.

“It’s very important to me conducting the Phoenix Symphony that their Tchaikovsky Fourth or their Beethoven Fifth is going to be something that makes sense for them. And a lot of that is going to be accomplished by coming with a strong concept for the piece but constantly leaving room to be who they are. And that’s the whole joy of it.”


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