Programming is a practice that falls somewhere in the cracks between high art, alchemy and sausage making.
There are two kinds of decisions orchestras make that greatly overshadow all other concerns.
1- What are we going to play
2- Who’s going to play it
Chances are, if an organization is struggling, they’re getting one of those wrong, if they’re surviving they’re getting much of it right.
However, programming can’t solve all problems.
Take the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra. We’d had a concert go badly over budget sometime ago when we had to replace a soloist at the last minute, and it had left us with what looked like a big hole in our finances.
As a result, we decided that our spring concert this year would be a marketing and budgetary dream-come-true. We were going to a venue where we’d been once before and had a very good, if not totally packed, crowd. We thought we’d try to sell out, but with a very cheap-to-produce concert. We knew we could save money by only taking a string orchestra, and picked a program that was sure to attract the punters- Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet op 95 as arranged by Mahler and the Four Seasons. Believe it or not, I’d managed to never conduct the Seasons or Eine Kleine before!
Early forecasts were promising- ticket sales were brisk.
However, on the day, a horrible storm hit Lancaster. In the end, we had a very disappointing take at the door, and a lot of empty seats in the house. I like all three of those pieces, but in putting the Mozart and Vivaldi on the same program, I felt like I’d sold my soul for nothing.
The most recent concert we did, however, was a different affair. We’d decided we wanted to do a piano work, and neither of our regular venues have an adequate piano, so we went looking for a new venue. In the end, we chose the auditorium at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls- a place the orchestra had not performed in for many, many years.
We settled on a program that was as uncompromising as the last one was pandering. A short American work, Copland’s Quiet City in rather anti-American times, then Shostakovich’s rather thorny early Concerto no. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, followed by a Haydn Symphony, in this case no. 92.
Believe me, nobody has ever suggested that Haydn sells a lot of tickets, which is a sad state of affairs.
Early signs were bad. Three other orchestras were playing in the area that night. The school didn’t do much publicity, which we had sort of been counting on, and many of our regular supporters were away and sent their regrets.
How surprising then, when we came out for the beginning of the concert to a full house!
Why? Who knows? Local trumpet soloist? Big local Haydn fan club? Lots of hard work by the orchestra? Flashy young pianist? The wine at intermission? Probably a bit of all those.
Anyway, we got away with a program that wouldn’t have gotten past a lot of committees, which is a great thing, because I love this program. In fact, I plan to do it again somewhere….
This is an issue. Generally, one does not repeat programs, although there are a few exceptions, notably the classic Bruckner 9 and Schubert 8 pairing that everyone does.
Aside from the fact that the three pieces are all great on their own, the program works well on other levels. From a planning point of view, it’s easy to rehearse, and if you’re going to bring in a trumpet soloist for the Shostakovich, it gives him or her a bit more to do.
One thing I told the audience was that it’s a program featuring works by three composers who all presented slightly misleading public faces to the world, or whose personalities, at least, have long been underestimated or misunderstood.
Take Copland. Musically speaking, Copland’s music pretty much defines the sound of America, even Americana. It’s the soundtrack of life that stirs thoughts of patriotism in red-state USA. However, Copland was anything but a naïve, God-and-country type. He was gay, socialist-bordering-on-communist and a New Yorker- not the kind of person who would have been welcomed for himself in the rural America he so vividly depicted. However, Copland answered a calling in the Depression years, turning away from a more intense, progressive style towards a musical language that he hoped would give his fellow citizens hope in difficult times. He created a mythology of a loving and decent America, of a sane and hopeful America, that people turned to for solace throughout the dark years of the depression and World War II. Quiet City has the same musical vocabulary as Rodeo or Appalachian Spring, which tells us that, urban or rural, the sound of America is the sound of Aaron Copland.
Shostakovich, of course, remains controversial to this day because of certain “scholars” inability to understand his sophisticated and cautious world view. In his own lifetime, Western writers dismissed him as nothing more than a communist apparachik, but his friend, collaborators and family memories have all confirmed the world-view laid out in Testimony of a man who struggled to bear witness to the suffering of his fellow citizens.
Looking back, Shostakovich and Copland were strikingly similar figures. Both were clearly the dominant musical personality of their respective country- the one in their time that all their colleagues looked up to with a mixture of admiration, jealousy and awe. Both saw their work as public service and saw their artistic life as a manifestation of moral imperative, and yet both were private men. Each of them carried a secret through life that could have brought untold public ridicule or personal disaster- Shostakovich’s dissidence and Copland’s sexuality and political views.
And then there is Haydn. If Shostakovich and Copland each possessed a talent and facility that were deeply intimidating to their peers, Haydn possessed a facility to intimidate Copland and Shostakovich. Like Shostakovich and Copland, Haydn also takes great pains to disguise some of his purposes.
Perhaps it was just his nature, his supreme confidence, that led Haydn to always go to great pains to make his music look simple, or perhaps it was because he had spent so much of his working life writing music for the entertainment of royal patrons who were probably not interested in being shaken to their core by musical experiences. Whatever the reason, the 92nd Symphony, like many of his other works presents a simple and almost naïve face to the world, but in fact, it is a profoundly complex and multi-layered work.
Just take the finale. The theme couldn’t be any simpler, almost to the point of sounding slightly inane, and yet Haydn develops it in the most sophisticated and heady ways imaginable. I told the audience on Saturday that the Haydn was the most complicated music on the program, but I don’t think anyone believed me until it was over.
In the end, he made believers out of everyone I talked to. It’s a pity his music is so rarely played, and when played, is so often played badly. Haydn learned to disguise himself as the humble servant of aristocratic listeners, but it was he who made everything that followed, from Mozart through to Berg possible. No Haydn, no Shostakovich…..
I think players and audience went home happy on Saturday, and much as I am the world’s biggest Shostakovich fan, and wonderfully as John and Ivan played, I think Pops stole the day. Still, I know next time I suggest a Haydn symphony somewhere else, the first thing I’ll hear will be “But Ken…. Haydn doesn’t sell…. How about Eine Kleine?”
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods