This season, FIM Flint Symphony Orchestra has celebrated the concept of music as a universal language, globetrotting to new landscapes at each classical concert. In the Fall, FSO explored the music of America and Germany, and this Winter they will continue their trek to Russia, Italy, and Spain. At every stop, audiences explore a history of culture and musical tradition unique to the region and may feel a special connection to the music and each other as they are transported to each destination.

Beautiful though it may be, is the music itself enough to connect us across cultures in the short span of a symphony performance? Dr. David Cole, program annotator for FSO, would argue not quite. “If the audience has just the music, there would certainly be enjoyable things about it,” says Cole, “but having some other discipline that can help them connect to the piece or the composer and its cultural context can add such breadth and depth to the experience.”

That’s where Dr. Cole comes in. Attendees of the FSO classical season are familiar with the impressive and thorough notes in which he provides historical context, little-known anecdotes, and biographical information about the featured composers. Though they are unlikely to run into Dr. Cole at Whiting Auditorium because he makes his home in San Antonio, TX, his voice makes an invaluable contribution to every FSO classical concert experience.

“In a typical audience, you have a mixture of people who may know many recordings for a given piece and people who’ve never heard the piece before, and you have to approach it from both ends,” Cole says of his role in each concert experience. “If I had a central goal in mind, it would be ‘how can I enhance the experience for the audience?’”

His answer to that question? Think outside the box. Way outside.

“I’m often told I come into a topic from left field to find some kind of unusual connection,” he says. For Cole, sometimes this means comparing Brahms to Abraham Lincoln or a Beethoven Symphony to War and Peace. “It is important to give historical and cultural perspective. Anything that unites the audience with the music.”
Dr. Cole has been writing program notes for FSO for five years, but he has done the same for other ensembles for over 30. A violinist and accomplished conductor, Cole has worked with orchestras of every skill-level, from beginning elementary students to professionals—most recently the Southwest Florida Symphony’s Youth Symphony—and he enjoys the process of finding new ways to connect to the music.

“If you’re doing your job as a conductor, every performance of a piece is different,” says Cole. “Music is a mirror that I hold up to myself,” he says, quoting one of his mentors, “and looking into this mirror shows me how I’ve changed.”

Not only is the interpretation of the music defined by the conductor’s wisdom gained over time, but in the unique makeup of each ensemble. “A great conductor pulls things from every musician that they didn’t know they had,” notes Cole. And that process starts from the moment the season is programmed, he suggests. “When programming, the conductor has duties to a lot of people—that includes the musicians,” he says. “To provide them with a musical experience that fulfills them as well. Because when musicians are fulfilled, we play better.”
Molded by an Air-Force-officer-turned-history-teacher father and a handful of “ferocious English teachers,” Cole says of his knack for annotating classical programs that “everything through my own education has given me the tools to work in the capacity I do now.”

Naturally, his process involves much research, but the wealth of music history Dr. Cole can recall in a casual conversation is remarkable. Sometimes, however, the music he is summarizing has no history. For instance, FSO performed a world-premiere violin concerto by contemporary composer Richard Ratner last October, for which Cole had to do some special digging. “For contemporary pieces, I try to speak directly to the composer because that is the best perspective. To hear the composer’s own voice engages the audience in a unique way.”

“90% of all contemporary music will be forgotten,” he points out. “Even in Beethoven’s time, there were hundreds of musicians that were highly regarded, but because of changes in taste, fell out of fashion. But pieces that are going to be standards in the repertoire, they all started off like that. Program notes try to help in the process of creating pieces that will be remembered.”

And it is imperative to incorporate unfamiliar music when programming a classical season, Cole insists. “When engaging the audience, there is a combination that works well of the familiar and the unfamiliar.” Too much of one or the other can be detrimental, he says. “A little bit of content that is not going to off-put your audience but will also be fresh territory is a good thing. But it must be done with a certain amount of engagement beyond just playing the music.”

It is the role of the music director and the orchestra to create trust among audiences by educating them in the process, he says. FSO does this through a series of pre-concert discussions before each performance, often some commentary from Conductor and Music Director Enrique Diemecke during the concert, and of course, through Dr. Cole’s elaborate notes.

“People don’t always come to love the arts in the ways we think they do,” he says. In fact, despite the current breadth of his classical music knowledge, Cole himself was not initially enamored with genres he now enjoys.
At 13, Cole’s parents took him to Puccini’s La Boheme at the Pittsburgh Opera where they had season tickets. “I hated it,” he recalls of his first opera experience. “It was so boring for a 13-year-old kid, lots of slow music.” But at 16, his parents convinced him to give opera another try, and he had a vastly different impression of Bartok’s Blue Beard’s Castle, which he describes as “a horror story.”

“In no time, the music changes from benign to sinister and creepy. It is such a wonderful, compact opera, and I was mesmerized.”

This is one experience he keeps close in mind when considering the diverse audience, he is trying to reach at any given performance. “We need to get away from the idea that everyone comes to the arts in the same way,” he says. “And it’s my job to balance all these intertwining things and hope that something catches people’s eyes, ears, and imaginations.”

You can find Dr. Cole’s notes in the programs for each concert. Here are a couple of his personal impressions of the FSO journey this winter.

“This concert is a good example of pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar. The Glinka and Tchaikovsky pieces are familiar, and a good percentage of the audience will have heard them. Then, in the middle, you have the Mussorgsky piece, which in my many years as a musician, I have never heard performed in public. It is wonderful! If someone played it for you, you might mistake it for a much later composer. He sets the voice part much like the rhythms and cadence of speech. It is very organic but at odds with the way we think about songs, and each of the little vignettes in the piece tells a marvelous story. I usually would not summarize each, but I made an exception in this case in my notes because I’m not sure people will know this piece like the back of their hand.”

Glinka, Mussorgsky
& Tchaikovsky
Pre-concert: 6:30 pm
Concert: 7:30 pm
Inside the Music:
From a Singer’s Perspective
Shayla Hottinger Powell, Descant Choral Conductor, offers unique insights from a singer’s perspective, offering a fresh vantage point into the evening’s works.

“I have performed the Rossini piece a number of times but recall one experience when conducting the Pines of Rome. The piece calls for extra brass players, which are sometimes on risers or on the balcony or on the sides of the stage, which is supposed to give the impression of brass sounds coming from everywhere. This time, I was conducting the piece at a university that did not have its own concert hall yet, so we performed in a local church, which could seat about 400 people, to give an idea of scale. At the peak of the performance, the sound was so loud in the small space that it was almost painful. But it was so all-consuming, it was wonderful. It was the type of sound that might have convinced a young fan of heavy metal to take up classical music!”

Rossini, Paganini,
& Raspighi
Pre-concert: 6:30 pm
Concert: 7:30 pm
Inside the Music:
Bella Roma…(and other delights)
Catherine McMichael, a talented composer, pianist, and the owner of Camillia Music, will tour you through the program’s selections.


To make the most of your musical world tour, be sure to arrive at 6:30 to go “Inside the Music. The program is free with a ticket to the concert.