Ken Meltzer is program annotator and “Insider” for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In addition to authoring the orchestra’s program notes, he is host of the ASO’s Inside the Music preconcert lectures and of Meet the Classics on radio station AM 1690. Both a public voice for the orchestra and an active presence behind the scenes, Meltzer recently spoke with ArtsATL about the personal musical journey that ultimately brought him to Atlanta, as well as his work at the ASO.
ArtsATL: How did you get started as a program annotator?
Ken Meltzer: Music was a very important part of our family [when I was growing up], although not so much classical music. The first classical album in our house was a Columbia recording of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra doing orchestral dances, including Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” I remember how kind of scared I got when that crazy violin came in at the beginning. So I realized early on that I like classical music.
In high school I had a French teacher who taught French opera as part of his curriculum. He opened up a window for me and I became a lifelong music lover at that point. I was an English major and music minor in college, and I practiced law for 11 years. I taught continuing education classes in Baltimore, wrote music reviews for the Baltimore Sun, and cohosted a weekly opera radio show, WBJC Opera Fest, with Jonathan Palevsky.
Henry Fogel, then president of the Chicago Symphony, was visiting Baltimore and happened to listen to my radio show. He was telling people how much he liked it at the same time my mother was walking into the room. My mom, being a proud Jewish mother, said, “That’s my son you’re talking about.” So Henry Fogel and I became friends, and he became very much a mentor to me.
My wife, Carolyn, finished her medical training in Baltimore and was going to accept her first attending position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Gideon Toeplitz, then president of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was a friend of Henry’s. Within a week, I was in Gideon’s office. He told me they had been looking for someone to be a unified artistic voice for the orchestra, write program notes, do preconcert lectures and act as a community liaison. I auditioned and gave them a set of program notes, and they hired me. That lasted from 1994 to 2005.
ArtsATL: And then similar circumstances brought you to Atlanta.
Meltzer: In 2005, Carolyn was recruited by Emory University to head a new brain research imaging center. As things would happen, Carolyn became the chair of Radiology at Emory, where she still is. The position was too good for us to say no. Allison Vulgamore, then president of the Atlanta Symphony, was also a friend of Henry Fogel, and Henry sent Allison a letter. There I was in Allison’s office, when Nick Jones came in and said he was going to retire in two years after serving 25 years as the ASO’s program annotator. Allison created a temporary position for me, then I took over for Nick when he retired. So here I am.
ArtsATL: Can you give some insight into what you do that is not seen by the public?
Meltzer: Probably the biggest thing in which I participate that people don’t see is what we call the “War Room,” where we get together people from all the different disciplines within the orchestra with Robert [Spano] and Stanley [Romanstein], and we work our way slowly but surely through the entire upcoming season and the season after that. We go through a number of permutations of the schedule, who will perform, what they will perform and how we’re going to put the programs together in a way that optimizes what we want to do and both pleases and challenges audiences as much as we can.
ArtsATL: Has the evolution of technologies changed what you do?
Meltzer: It has made it remarkably easier. When I first started, I recorded musical excerpts for my lectures onto cassette. Starting about ’98 or ’99, I started putting them all on compact disc. Essentially all the lectures that I’ve done for the Atlanta Symphony are stored now on my computer.
When I worked for the Pittsburgh Symphony, I would script, narrate and produce CDs that would go to the schools in advance of our children’s concerts. It would be a 10-minute production involving a combination of narration and sound clips. I would go to the WQED-FM studios and record my narration on reel-to-reel tape. An engineer would have to then splice my musical excerpts into the narration. All of that would require a full workday.
I do a very similar thing now for AM 1690. They have a 10-minute weekly radio show, Meet the Classics. It probably takes me an hour to do what took a full workday before, all because I can sit in front of my Mac and record the voice tracks, mix in the music excerpts, put it all together as an mp3 file and e-mail it to the producer. I’ve done that without moving an inch to either side from my computer unless of course the dogs want to go out and I take a break and take them out.
ArtsATL: How do you research and compile your program notes?
Meltzer: First of all I get the score, [then] try to read as many different sources as I can, with an emphasis on first-person sources. If I can find resources that have a composer talking about [the] piece, that’s of the utmost importance to me. Then I read as many other books about the composer and the particular piece as I can. Having [written] program notes since 1994, and given the way that we perform repertoire in the symphonic world, I have probably already written program notes on 80 percent of the [season’s] repertoire at least once before. What I do is go back, look at what I’ve written to see if I need to do any further research. I always go through the music from beginning to end to make sure that my musical descriptions are accurate. I always fact-check everything before I submit the program notes in their current final form.
ArtsATL: At the beginning of this past season your notes were removed from the program booklets and replaced with extremely short squibs. What was the story behind that?
Meltzer: We previously had a structure with our publisher that gave us essentially unlimited space for my program notes. The publisher was not able to continue with that arrangement so we had to look for a different way to approach it. There was a period of adjustment during the first half of the season. We had to try to figure a way to provide our audience with information when we did not have the flexibility of printed space that we had in the past.
ArtsATL: But they were restored later, albeit to a shorter length than before.
Meltzer: We [found we] were able to provide program notes in a length that are similar to just about every other orchestra for which I write program notes. We still maintain my full-length program notes on our website.
ArtsATL: Why are program notes important?
Meltzer: I view my job as providing audiences with some form of instant education. What I hope is when they read my program notes they’ll feel that they know the piece and its background a little better and that they’ll be a little more excited about hearing it.
The need for program notes has increased over time given the diminishing amount of educational time devoted to concert music in our school systems. We as a performing arts organization have an even greater responsibility to provide immediate instant education to our audience. What’s interesting is that even though education in the schools has diminished, we now have more tools at our disposal to expose people to classical music than at any other time in the history of this art form with the Internet, recordings and with video.
ArtsATL: You also do translations and prepare and run surtitles when there is sung text.
Meltzer: This is an area of work that I never anticipated doing. I took voice lessons for many years in Baltimore. I really feel that put me in a position where I could be respectful of singers and not step on their toes. You don’t want to get to the text in advance of them delivering it because it ruins it for the audience.
ArtsATL: You actually cue each change yourself?
Meltzer: I do. I sit upstairs, up above the stage. I have a view of the conductor and as much of the singers as I can. The Mac is in front of me, the scores to my left. I sit there and hit the space bar maybe 200 to 400 times. It’s quite a tightrope to walk, but really fun. It is performance art in the sense that you don’t really want to be noticed. If people notice anything about the surtitles, other than the fact they’re running, you haven’t done your job properly.
ArtsATL: And there is your collaboration with musicians in the preconcert chamber music series, plus the direct support it receives from you and Carolyn.
Meltzer: The musicians founded it. Then, after the labor dispute two years ago, it looked as if that was going to fall into limbo for lack of a financial support. Carolyn and I had a block of funds that we were going to use for something else and now weren’t going to, and I just said, “Well, we’ll underwrite it.” So this is our second year of underwriting and we’re going to continue next year.
There are several reasons why. I think that we should support these musicians every way we can, as best we can. They’re wonderful people, wonderful colleagues, who play music at the absolute highest level and really care about their mission of playing great music. The chamber music is very important. We present repertoire by the same composers featured on the orchestral portion of our programs and the audiences get to hear another side of those composers. It’s a wonderful communal experience, so I was happy that we had the wherewithal to support it.