How to Make the Best Performance

Elena Lence Talley (photo by Jim Barcus)

Kansas City Symphony Librarian Elena Lence Talley Knows the Score

If you’ve attended a concert of the Kansas City Symphony anytime in the last 29 years, you’ve probably seen her, striding onstage as the instrumentalists set up, with a score in hand for the conductor’s stand. And though you might not realize it, you’ve definitely heard the benefit of her work.

Elena Lence Talley is the principal music librarian for the Kansas City Symphony. In 1992, she was hired as the organization’s first full-time librarian.

“I absolutely fell into it and learned on the job, pretty much taught myself,” Talley said. “Honestly, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an orchestra librarian. It didn’t even cross my mind how the music ended up on my music stand.”

Talley had been working as a freelance musician, subbing with the orchestra and working part time with the previous performance librarian (who was pianist with the orchestra), mostly just penciling in part markings. The librarian retired, and Talley was hired at the beginning of August, with just a few weeks to prepare for the upcoming season.

Since then, though, she has shaped the role. From the KCS music library in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, she manages an extensive database of KCS performance history, navigates licensing agreements, maintains archives and researches repertoire for the music director, along with the practicalities of procuring and preparing music for 80-plus instrumentalists in hundreds of concerts a season.

Marking parts is an extensive job. String parts, especially, need to have bowings, coordinated up- and down-bow marked in each part, determined by the concertmaster and string principals. If there are edits, errata or cuts in a piece, the librarians mark those in every part as well. Every mark is made in pencil, by hand.

“Every job description out there says you have to be detail oriented, but for the performance librarian, it probably needs to be the first thing on the list,” Talley said.

“There’s never just one concert on the horizon. There are multiple concerts all of the time, so the music just keeps flowing.”

Elena Lence Talley

Both Talley and her librarian cohort, Fabrice Curtis, (coincidentally, both clarinetists) are considered members of the orchestra complement, with the same rights and privileges as anyone on stage.

“You could not do the job without a strong musical background,” said Talley, who has two degrees in music from the University of North Texas. “We’re thinking like musicians all of the time. Our goal is to prepare the music in such a way that the performing musicians on the stage only have to think about how to make the best performance.”

One of the librarians is always at every rehearsal and concert in their satellite library backstage of Helzberg Hall, ready to help if the need arises.

As seen in this second violin part, Talley marks all the orchestra’s string parts with up ( v ) and down ( ∏ ) bowing notations determined by the concertmaster and string principals. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Talley’s season planning starts a year in advance, if not more. She works with music director Michael Stern, helping research repertoire. As soon as a season is finalized, usually around February, she begins the process of securing new or rental scores. She handles licensing agreements with publishers and composers. She and Curtis are in the library in early August to start preparing music, readying everything for the orchestra’s concerts at least two weeks before their first rehearsal.

At the end of the season in June, when many of the orchestra members are heading off to summer festival (in a normal year), the librarians spend a week or so cleaning up the collection, returning materials to publishers and updating the ever-expanding database.

The job can be hectic but filled with satisfaction. “That’s one of my favorite moments in the music preparation process, when I’ve got all the music of that concert ready: All of the bowings are done, all the music is in folders, and I’ve got it ready for the orchestra members to check out. For that brief moment in time, it’s done.”

“Of course,” she continues, “there’s never just one concert on the horizon. There are multiple concerts all of the time, so the music just keeps flowing.”

A Love of Chamber Music and Performing

Talley also performs with the Lyric Arts Trio, which she founded in the 1980s. “What feeds my soul avocationally is chamber music and performing.”

She performs on clarinet with soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson and pianist Dan Velicer. In a normal year, they perform around the Midwest. “Something really, really special happens in my life when I get to perform with them.”

This year has been different of course, but still busy. Over the summer, Talley performed porch concerts with symphony colleagues. “I have never played outdoors so much in my life. Lord almighty. You don’t go anywhere without your wind clips.” She also organized and performed chamber music concerts at local food pantry pick-ups.

And she’s busy with the KC Symphony, too, with Mobile Music Box concerts in the fall and the virtual on-demand MySymphonySeat series in 2021, sometimes requiring three programs worth of music a week for the recording schedule.

“One of the things I enjoy most about my work with the Kansas City Symphony, and it carries forth into my Lyric Arts Trio life, is crafting a program. I love doing the research, thinking about what works go together,” said Talley. “That’s when I really whip into action. It keeps it fresh. One of the things I still appreciate after all these years on the job as a librarian is that I learn something new every day.”

When Talley was hired, it was important to the executive director at the time that she know how to use a computer. One of her first tasks was to enter the entire collection, all of the scores and sets of parts, into a database, something they still maintain, along with the traditional card catalog. The library also includes a collection of concert programs, each season in a bound volume, a project Talley instigated and maintains. The size of the collection, she said, generates “shock and awe. We’ve got items that go back to the beginning of the Kansas City Philharmonic.”

“That is something I appreciate and enjoy, that I am part of a legacy and I’m one of the caretakers of this legacy.”

Visit kcsymphony.org to learn more about the Kansas City Symphony, and visit lyricartstrio.com to learn more about the Lyric Arts Trio.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply