Saturday, 28 April 2012

Choosing concert programmes

Choosing a programme for an amateur orchestral concert is a considerable art. There are quite a few things that need to be considered.

First you need to think of the numbers and quality of the players you have. Are they capable of playing a specific piece? If they aren't, there's no point in programming it. You can stretch the players, but you mustn't break them.

Then there's the question of cost. Is the music expensive to hire? Does the piece require additional players of obscure instruments who will need to be brought in (and probably paid)? That a piece is expensive to put on isn't necessarily a bar, but there is a limit to how many expensive concerts an amateur orchestra can afford.

Then there's the question of whether the programme is likely to attract an audience. Each individual orchestra will have its own audience and you should be looking to know their tastes, and to some degree cater for them. There is a fine balance between giving them what they know and like, and introducing them to something they don't know but might like.

And then there is the question of whether the orchestra will enjoy rehearsing the piece. This is not a trivial consideration. For an amateur orchestra, a significant number of people in the audience will be friends and relatives of the players coming along to support them. The players are the orchestra's sales force. If the players don't have confidence in the programme, they aren't going to work hard to get their friends to come along to the concert.

When I'm involved in helping to choose a programme for an orchestral concert, I work on the principle that for most amateur orchestral concerts, every programme should contain at least one disgustingly popular work. In Britain, that generally means a piece in the Classic FM Hall of Fame Top 300, or a piece that could easily be mistaken for something on the list (for instance one of Tchaikovksy's first three symphonies instead of one of his last three). This piece is what will actually get people into the hall. Then you have a bit more freedom with the rest of the programme. You can pick some works that are a bit less familiar. You can pick a concerto, you can pick something modern (perhaps even commissioned by the orchestra). There is plenty of room for creativity provided you remember that people have to persuaded to come, and you want them to enjoy it enough that they will want to come back next time.

My thoughts along these lines have been triggered by disagreements I've had with the conductor of one of the orchestras I'm a member of.

Our spring concert consisted of the following:

Schumann: Overture Hermann and Dorothea
John Woolrich: The Theatre Represents a Garden - Night
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

The Eroica is fine. It's an undeniably great work, it is popular, it is playable, albeit challenging in places. The problem was with the other two pieces.

The Schumann overture is not well known, and having played it, I can see why. It's what I would call one of his "justly neglected" works. It's worth a very occasional airing, but it's not good enough ever to become particularly popular and isn't all that enjoyable to rehearse - the same gloomy tune repeated over and again with bits of La Marseillaise interspersed occasionally. I've never played it before and I have no great desire ever to play it again.

John Woolrich is a favourite of our conductor. He's a living British composer. I had never heard of him before, and specifically never heard of this piece. It is passages of Mozart (mainly taken from uncompleted fragments of works) tacked together with odd time signatures and somewhat abrupt transitions between subjects. My feeling was that if we wanted to play something that sounded like Mozart, we could actually have played some Mozart. The frequent changes of speed and of time signature made the piece difficult to rehearse. The effect achieved wasn't really worth the effort involved.

I don't mind musical experiments. I like them. I accept that not all experiments will work, and if you try an experiment that doesn't work, you learn from it and move on. But two obscure or experimental pieces in the same programme in my view was one too many. I certainly didn't feel that I wanted to bring all my friends to the concert, and I suspect that others in the orchestra felt the same. The audience was down by almost half on our usual numbers.

The programme for the orchestra's summer concert will be as follows

Rossini: Overture Il Turco in Italia
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

In my view, this programme breaks the rule of making sure that most of what you put on will be enjoyable to rehearse. The Tchaikovsky is undeniably a great work. But it is a concerto, so the soloist has most of the good tunes, and much of what the orchestra plays is relatively uninteresting accompaniment. For a professional orchestra, this doesn't matter so much - they are paid to turn up and play whatever is put in front of them. But for an amateur orchestra, the players won't turn up if they don't enjoy rehearsals.

The Rossini is fine, it's not one of his best-known overtures, but it is tuneful and pleasant enough. But it only 9 or 10 minutes long, it isn't going to occupy much time in rehearsal.

The Schoenberg is another problem. The composer's name frightens audiences, he is synonymous with difficult tuneless atonal music. He invented serialism, a musical system based on the ultimate democratic principle that every semitone in a chromatic scale is as important as every other semitone, and should be heard as often in a piece. The problem with this idea is that our ears aren't democratic, and like consonant harmonies better than overly frequent dissonances. As it happens, the Chamber Symphony No. 2 isn't one of his atonal pieces, but it isn't the most tuneful thing in the world. Moreover it does have some odd harmonies and some difficult transitions of speed. It is going to be a problem to rehearse.

I think that this programme again is going to have trouble attracting an audience and gaining the confidence of the players. The conductor told me that he felt that the Schoenberg was an excellent training piece for the orchestra, and that they would improve musically as a group by playing it. My view is that the orchestra exists to play music to audiences, and there's not much much point in playing to an empty hall even if what we play turns out to be a musical triumph.

And it is so unnecessary. The orchestra had a unique opportunity to play the Tchaikovsky with a bright young soloist who is taking up a post in Germany in the autumn. That's fine, the programme could have been built round that. The Rossini was fine with it. But having all but 10 minutes of the programme containing pieces that don't have much in the way of orchestral tunes is in my view the wrong way to programme an amateur concert. So, you don't have a long concerto and a long experimental or obscurely difficult piece in the same concert, it's a step too far. The situation could have been resolved really easily by programming the Schoenberg some other time, and putting a Mozart or Haydn symphony in, or if you wanted to be a bit more modern and ambitious, perhaps Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 "Classical", which is very lively, contains some very enjoyable tunes and is scored for much the same group of instruments. I could without much effort think of 15 or 20 other pieces that could have filled that gap quite satisfactorily.

But with the Schoenberg I foresee another poor audience. I've also decided I don't want to spend a second consecutive unenjoyable term rehearsing a programme I don't have confidence in. I play music to enjoy it. I've discussed the issue with the conductor, he's not budging. I don't think it is fair on the orchestra for me to pick and choose which programmes I'll play, so I've decided to leave.