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Saturday, August 25, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

The woman behind the 'puzzle' of planning an SSO season

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

There's always at least one person in an arts organization who has an intriguing job title, but whose actual duties are a bit of a mystery.

Elena Dubinets, vice president of artistic planning at Seattle Symphony, is one of those people. As the Seattle Symphony Orchestra readies for the 2012-13 season, she is one of the key figures in the city's cultural landscape, shaping the vision of the SSO.

An author of several books about music, she has curated music for American and Russian festivals, is artistic adviser for the Seattle Chamber Players and chairs the City of Seattle Music Commission.

And she is as comfortable helping a nonmusician understand the creative process as she is translating an interview with a composer in Moscow.

Dubinets, 43, has a doctorate from the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and has lived in the U.S. since 1996. In 2006, Dubinets assumed her current position at SSO.

Q: OK, Elena, define "artistic planning" at Seattle Symphony.

A: It's a puzzle, putting pieces in place concerning scheduling, musicians' union rules, repertoire, artist development, and many more things that need to come together somehow.

Q: Are you involved with programming and choosing guest artists?

A: I work with many people on that, primarily the music director, executive director and marketing department. Together, we identify strategies for each season. I book artists, help select music. It's a complicated process, and always collaborative. We start with what (music director) Ludovic Morlot wants to achieve, discuss other ideas.

It's a long-term process, and we work on several seasons at once.

Q: How do you match a guest musician with a piece of music?

A: Ludovic very often has a definite idea about which piece should be played by which artist. Usually he determines repertoire first and identifies several artists who are good with that piece. I see who's available, and we go from there. Sometimes the process is more random with stars. They play what they want.

Q: Do you talk to the artists yourself?

A: I talk to managers and agents about artist availability and terms. But it's much more comfortable to discuss repertoire with artists, going over details about possible cuts in a piece, different mutations, arrangements. Also, I know many artists. Some are my close colleagues and friends. That helps, definitely.

Q: Do you and Ludovic talk a lot about programming?

A: Absolutely. I'm in touch 24-7 with him. When he's in Europe, it might be midnight here, but he'll send his thoughts to me.

Q: What do you do when there's a guest cancellation? Scramble?

A: Yes, that's exactly what happens, though I always think about possible cancellations. I know who else can play a particular piece or sing a role. Then it's a matter of artist availability.

Q: How do you work with composers commissioned by Seattle Symphony?

A: As a musicologist, my primary field is contemporary music. I know quite a few composers all over the world and have a lot of experience working with them. We typically come to a joint decision about which composers would fit our program and start working with them, identifying exact parameters for a piece, including length and a timeline for submission of the score and parts for each musician. We never dictate anything besides approximate length and instrumentation, because we want composers to create their own work.

Q: You play piano. Do you perform?

A: I play chamber music with my daughter, a cellist. But I don't go near a stage.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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