• Jen Huber

The Challenge in Choices

Updated: May 21

How Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Director of Artistic Planning Katie McGuinness shapes a season at the symphony

When Katie McGuinness, Director of Artistic Planning for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, sits down to schedule a season of classical concerts, she has 18 concerts to fit into the calendar year. Only she can’t plan them in the summer months, or in the month of December, and she has to work around holidays and major events in the city. So somehow, she has to fit in 18 weekends of classical concerts while also working around other concerts at the Hilbert Circle Theatre including films, Pops weekends, and special events. And all this is before she even starts to look at the schedules of the conductors and the guest artists. If it sounds a bit daunting and slightly overwhelming, it’s because it is.

Nevertheless, Katie has a plan. The most important element is to note which weekends that Music Director Krzysztof Urbański is available, which means planning very far in advance. Katie says that she knows his availability about three years out, since those dates are written into his contract. Armed with that knowledge, Katie then meets with staff members from the Pops Department, Development, Operations, Marketing & Communications, and the CEO to determine which type of concert can go on a certain weekend, while making sure that no more than two classical concerts are on back-to-back weekends. Once the basic calendar is locked into place, then she gets to work on the content.

Piece by piece

Planning the content of a concert starts with Katie choosing the guest artist. Sometimes she has a particular piece or instrument in mind and asks if he or she is available just for that selection. At the same time she is working on the guest artist list, she is starting to look at guest conductors.

“I’m always trying to build a relationship with guest conductors and keep new faces on the podium,” she explains. “But I try to balance a season with new conductors and more seasoned ones.”

Once she has a list of interested conductors with their available dates, she adds those to the calendar, and then works to pair them with guest artists. By working with the managers of both the artist and the conductor, she slowly starts to shape the concerts.

“Usually the conductor decides if he or she wants to work with the artist,” she explains. “It depends a lot on where they are in their career and their status.”

After a conductor and an artist agree to work together, she starts to work with both of them on deciding what pieces will be performed. She also allows for a couple of larger programs, such as ones with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir or ones that are part of a festival.

“I have to know what the audience will or won’t like,” she says. “I try to mix new or unknown pieces with ones that the audience does know, and sometimes I try to create a theme for a concert and work around that.”

Practice makes perfect

Knowing what an audience likes takes time, and Katie is willing to put in the work. “I have music playing a lot in the background at home and at work,” she says, “but I also take time to research and listen to as many classical pieces as possible. Every time someone gives me a suggestion of a piece, I look it up and actively listen to it and critically analyze it.” She also goes to as many performances as possible to see what pieces have paired together in order to build up her knowledge base. “Over time, you learn from experience,” she explains. “I always am looking at other orchestras and their repertoire and I talk to the musicians a lot to get ideas on artists and pieces that they like.” She keeps a running list on her computer so that when it comes to programming, she has some ideas ready. “I try to be open minded and absorb as much music and knowledge as I can,” she says.

Shaping her future

Katie started honing her knowledge when she was working on her doctorate degree for piano performance at Indiana University. She had been playing piano since the age of 4 and had plans of becoming a professional pianist, but decided to explore the arts management field. She spent a summer as a scheduling coordinator for the Aspen Music Festival in 2010, and returned to Aspen for the summer 2011 festival, and then decided that management was what she wanted to pursue. “When I returned to Aspen, I was like, ‘Oh! I’m going to go into management. This is it.’ I knew that was the career path I wanted.”

Around that time, an artist management company in London called HarrisonParrott called and invited her to interview and come work for them. While working for them as Assistant Artist Manager, Krzysztof Urbański was hired in 2011 as the Music Director of the ISO. “It’s so weird how life has a way of bringing you around in a full circle!” she says. “Of course I knew about the ISO having spent time in Bloomington.”

Katie knew she wanted to be in management, but she wanted to be closer to the music, not just booking flights and hotels and negotiating contracts for artists. She knew she needed to be at a director level in order to accomplish her career goals and decided that she wanted to work for an orchestra. Katie and her boyfriend (now husband) ended up in Pittsburgh, and Katie secured a job at the Pittsburgh Symphony, working with artistic planning.

She stayed at Pittsburgh for a little over three years until the ISO came calling in 2016. “I knew that I needed to make a move to build my career and to get experience being in charge, so I took the job and started at the ISO in January 2017,” she says.

In her three years as being the Director of Artistic Planning at the ISO, she is starting to feel more confident in her role and in her decisions. When waiting to see how the audience reacts to a concert or a certain piece, “I’m often terrified,” she says. “I have so many worries and it takes so much planning, but the more I do it, the easier it is getting. I’ve had to teach myself to be OK with whatever happens.” But on the concerts that are great and the audience loves it? “That feels pretty good. The moments that you feel the success make it worthwhile.”

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