I heard countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in a Celebrity Series recital in Boston last week. The program included much of his new album — fabulous. One aspect of the concert that was particularly noteworthy was the striking programming, examining pairs of composers. He started the concert with a set that alternated pieces by Purcell and Britten. An excerpt from The Fairy Queen was followed by one from The Turn of the Screw, and Purcell’s Tis Nature’s Voice was followed by Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol. So it was a kind of Purcell / Britten club sandwich approach to programming.
The effect, as you heard each song in the wake of its predecessor, was a combined dual through line — each with its own composer subtext. Every song seemed to reflect and comment on what came before. The set got me considering both composers anew.
Above all, the programming got me to listen with fresh ears. It made the Purcell sound quite new, and the Britten sound timeless.
Purcell and Britten—who would think to pair them like this?
But Anthony Roth Costanzo isn’t the only artist experimenting with interweaving contrasting works.
This past summer at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival I got to hear the Brentano Quartet perform Webern’s 6 Bagatelles for String Quartet, each Bagatelle followed by a different early Minuet by Schubert. The Webern Bagatelles are otherworldly miniatures; as Anthony Thomassini describes them, “radically compact” and “essentially atonal.” Presenting these in between rarely heard Schubert minuets had my imagination firing. I felt like I was part of an exploration into the nature of form in music — and in life.
The first time I ever heard two works presented in alternating fashion like this was back in 2012. I heard the Australian Chamber Orchestra perform Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet (Op. 5) sandwiched between excerpts from George Crumb’s Black Angels. The movements and excerpts were played without pause, creating an arresting whole.
And a more recent example comes from a pianist and educator I’ve worked with in the past, Kenneth Saxon. He offers a program that alternates Chopin Mazurkas with works in another dance form, Cuecas, by the Bolivian composer Simeon Roncal. Unexpected and intriguing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we all start doing club sandwich-style concert programming.
What I AM suggesting is this:
Think strategically about how you program.
Essentially, concert series presenters look to book performers who can attract, engage, and enlighten their audiences. Your programming plays an important role in this.
If you’re pitching a presenter, asking her or him to take a chance on booking a relatively unknown artist, you need to have something noteworthy to offer. If you’re simply programming standard repertoire in a standard format, then you’re making the presenter’s job harder to help you draw an audience. For artists without instant name recognition, creative programming is essential. (And it helps if you’ll also introduce your creative programming, speaking from the stage and inviting the audience in to your process.)
Do you need to have a gimmick?
No. What you need is to help audiences connect with the music you perform. It’s about creating context and story around the works you’re offering — a through line for the audience.
To power up your booking and your performances, consider the following.
4 Questions to ask when programming
1. What do you find surprising and engaging about the works you plan to perform?
2. How do you experience these works in relation to each other?
3. What do you want your audience to experience during your performance?
4. How might your programming help the audience listen with fresh ears?
As performers, we need to do more than simply program the music we want to perform. Our audiences deserve to be invited in so they can make meaningful personal connections with the music we offer. Here’s to more creative programming!
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