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Programming: Creating Satisfying Recital Programs

Programming: Creating Satisfying Recital Programs

When picking which pieces to play, I'm always imagining what role each piece will play in the recital being planned. This is so for my own playing as much as it is for my students. I'm not sure this type of planning is universal. Sometimes it seems the pieces bring prepared have utility in terms of encouraging musical or technical growth but don't complement one another in a way which yields a great program. And yet, in the end, we sit on stage to present an entire program.

I regard the program is part of an artistic continuum. We work to master each note, each gesture, each phrase, each section and eventually each entire piece. The next level of artistic consideration is how the pieces sound in succession, how they work together. It can be done brilliantly and creatively, with elements of delight and surprise. Or it can be ignored and left to chance, often resulting in a bland or even jarring final result. 

As a student, I was taught to perform pieces in historical order: open with Dowland, then Bach, then Giuliani, then Tarrega, etc. This was the default way to program for many years and, maybe surprisingly, most professionals followed the format. Fortunately, people started experimenting with the sequence and new, interesting programming ideas have become more common. 

In a standard two-part recital program, there are four key spots that need to be filled: the opener, the piece that precedes intermission, the opener for the second half, and the closer. If the pieces are short enough, there will be additional works inserted in-between. The emotional arc of the concert is determined by which pieces occupy which spots. Do you want to end with a rousing finish or a quiet and soulful one? Do you want your heaviest, most complex piece in the first half or after the intermission? Do you want to group similar works together or separate them with contrasting pieces? Do you want the audience humming a tune you played during the intermission? 

There are so many ways to organize the music (and so much music to organize!) that the programming possibilities are infinite. But for each of us, with our specific list of pieces, there are just a few options. Let's take a familiar grouping of pieces to consider an example:

Britten-Nocturnal (15m)
Bach-Lute Suite BWV 997 (20m)
Regondi-Nocturne Reverie (9m)
Morel-Sonatina (10m)
Carter-Shard (3m)
Villa-Lobos-Prelude No 1 (5m)

In this assortment as in any, it is important to note the characteristics of each piece--it's length, whether is it generally lyrical, rhythmical or intellectually dense and so on. You'll also want to consider how comfortable you are starting with each piece to determine which one is your best opener. To me this is critical! I prefer for an opener to be easy to play and not too long (to let in late-comers). It's sensible in some cases to add one if the primary repertoire doesn't offer a good option. In this lineup the Villa-Lobos Prelude makes a natural opener. 

If you put the Bach Suite next, then you could close the first half with the Regondi, for a perfect-length satisfying first half. It starts folksy and melodic, dives into the intellectually stimulating and richly contrapuntal Bach Suite and closes with the exquisitely romantic master tremolo piece. It is about 35 minutes, a perfect length for the first half. 

The remaining pieces could unfold with the Britten opening the second half--an excellent spot for a serious lengthy piece. The the short, spiky Carter piece finds a comfortable place as a palate-cleanser before the folksy and melodic finale, the irresistible Morel Sonatina. This second-half clocks in at about 28 minutes. 

This arrangement is still very traditional, in that the earlier music is on the first half and the newer music is on the second half. But the flow is nice and the balance, both in piece-durations and relative seriousness is undeniable. The South American music forms bookends for the other music and in general, lyrical pieces alternate with non-lyrical pieces. The first half is longer than the second half, an arrangement which always feels right. It works. 

There are other solutions. You could open with Shard. It would be a startling and quiet-inducing start. Shard could be followed by Reverie, then the Villa-Lobos Prelude, then Nocturnal to close the first half (about 32m). Open the second half with Bach, then close with the Morel. The second half, at 30m is suitably shorter than the first, and the sequence is diverting. 

I have played, supervised the creation of, and been in the audience for, countless guitar programs. I've heard composer-themed programs comprised of, say, the complete Villa-Lobos solo guitar works, or the four Bach Lute Suites. Or programs based on a form, like all waltzes, or all preludes, or all sonatas. I've heard country-specific programs, such as all-Spanish or all-Brazilian, and period-specific programs, such as all-Romantic or all-modern. Each of these and programs like them can be richly rewarding to both play and to listen to. 

Sometimes we play programs that seem over the line: one season I went around playing solo recitals comprised solely of Mazurkas by Chopin. Of course I took care to arrange them for the most variety and interest possible, but it was all Chopin and even all-mazurkas. Even pianists never do that! My reason for doing it was simple: I needed to road test them for the recording project. But the audience heard a most unusual guitar concert. The responses were surprisingly positive. 

Other times we might have lots of unrelated short pieces, perhaps repertoire to accommodate competitions and their time limitations. These recitals can seem more like pop concerts, with audience response after every piece, and can be very effective if structured well. If desired, artificial groupings can be made such as "four (unrelated) Spanish pieces" or "A Bach Sampler." Doing this would make it feel more like a traditional classical concert.

Some artists are making unusual pairings that serve up startling contrasts and underline sometimes hidden relationships. A recent favorite was a Benjamin Verdery program in which he segued without pause from a Lou Harrison piece into the famous Mozart Adagio. The effect was odd but unexpectedly delightful. Sometimes splitting up companion pieces is the best approach. I heard David Russell once sprinkle Albeniz works throughout a program, interspersing dissimilar material. A program I'm planning now (for flute & guitar) will feature three Chopin Nocturnes, but they'll be spread throughout the program, serving to emotionally unify the evening. Playing them sequentially wouldn't work (for me). 

In the end, the way an artist programs is an important part of their signature musical statement. Look at your current repertoire and consider: how many ways could the pieces be arranged in a recital? There may be more than you imagine. And you may be surprised at how much you like an unlikely sequence. 









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