05 April 2017

How to Programme a Recital

During my time in the sixth form at school one of my fellow-students was also an organist, Michael Overbury.  He claimed that the ideal programming for an organ recital was to lead up to the Bach work.  He believed Bach to be second only to God in the hierarchy of human existence.  He argued that no music he would play was equal to Bach, so if you followed Bach with anything else it would be an anti-climax, while preceding Bach with other music created a sense of building to a climax. 

I thought he was mad.

But that was then.  At the age of 17, when Michael could toss of a Trio Sonata every bit as easily as he could Mulet’s Tu es Petra  - both of which I struggled to master then, and have never fully succeeded in mastering since – I was happy to disguise my envy with statements relating to Michael’s weird state of mind.  I regret my thoughts then, spoken and unspoken. 

But I still think he was mad.

I would not argue against his belief that Bach’s music was (and is) the pinnacle of the organ repertory and that everything else might be perceived as anticlimactic.  But I am even more certain now than I was back then that this is bad programming.  The trouble is not the musical quality, it’s the audience quality.   Audiences for organ recitals comprise mostly (if not exclusively) people who love the sound of the organ way and above the intricacies of the music it plays.  Why else do so many people drool over Cocker’s Tuba Tune, Widor’s Toccata or, really scraping the barrel here, anything and everything by Percy Whitlock?  It’s all third rate music.  As Arthur Wills memorably wrote, the trouble with organ music is that it is too ambitious for the organ but too weak to justify the time and effort involved in transferring it to the orchestra.

So, whether we like it or not, the best organ recitals stick Bach before the end (I usually put it in the middle – when I play it, which is not often, because I play it badly) and have as their climax some predictably uninventive French Toccata which is made up of the kind of material sixth form harmony students regard as juvenile, but which sends the shivers down the spines of otherwise spineless organ buffs.

However, Michael’s approach works once you get away from the organ.  I attended a short violin recital yesterday in which the Bach unaccompanied Sonata in D minor (BWV1004) was both the culmination and the climax of a programme so well conceived and executed, one wished it had been recorded as an example to others on how to do such things.

Musicians often fail to understand the value of good programme building.  Students fail their diplomas, young and unknown musicians find audiences unwilling to attend their recitals, and established figures earn a reputation for being tired, not because of their playing or their musicality, but because their programming is poor.  Anyone who argues that chronology makes logical programming clearly has never sat through the tiresomely boring and utterly unmusical sequence of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov time after time.  When I examined diploma students, the one who might programme it as Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Bach got my vote simply because it showed musical thought rather than predictability – and that had to be mirrored in the playing itself, subconsciously or consciously.  It certainly made me sit up and listen more intently.

Unaccompanied violin recitals are fairly rare, but when they do exist, you can be sure that Bach will be there, and usually sitting right bang in the front.  When you hear it like that, Michael’s point that everything else is an anti-climax is vividly confirmed.  The Bach Violin Sonatas are pinnacles, and just as you don’t climb Mount Everest on your first day as a mountaineer and then boast about scaling Snowdon in the train, so you don’t play Bach and then let everyone know how brilliant you are by playing a new piece by an unknown student composer.  Putting Bach last really does work, and Ukrainian violinist Orest Smovzh proved it conclusively in his recital.

A former student in Singapore and now studying with Midori in Los Angeles, Orest is an outstanding player by any standards.  But he enters a world crammed full of outstanding players; how is he to make his mark?  Orest will make his mark, of that you can be sure, because of his intelligent, imaginative and inspired approach to programme planning.

He performed four works, and while there was a coherent theme linking them (which is a pre-requisite in any successful programme) it was the order in which he performed them which gave this recital great distinction.   He began with a work by a Ukrainian composer called V. Vyshynsky (we weren’t given the composer’s forenames and I am ill-equipped to transliterate them).  This was a fine piece modelled on a Baroque suite in reverse (it began with a “Giga” and ended with a “Sarabande”), and which, in its fairly light character, its short and varied sections, and its exposition of colours and techniques possible in solo violin playing, caught the audience’s attention, settled them down and got us all interested in the player. 

Late-comers (an essential aspect of any Asian event) missed that, but were seated in time for another Ukrainian work, a lament called Kommos by O. Bezborodko.  This was a deeply moving piece which clearly had a profound emotional impact on Smovzh and which he communicated with exceptional power.  With this the audience had a heavy dose of emotional intensity, and being quite short, there was an almost tangible sense of release when it came to the third piece, Remnants of the Spring by Singaporean Kong Meng Liew.  This was a clever placing for as the weakest work in the programme, its fresh qualities were uppermost in the aftermath of the seriousness of the Bezborodko while its musical weaknesses were easily overlooked in the audience’s over-riding need for something less emotionally draining.

But Liew, albeit inadvertently, brilliantly paved the way for the Bach.  We had settled down after the fun at the start, we had enjoyed moments of emotional intensity and musical superficiality.  Now, and only now, were we ready for the high intellectualism of Bach.

I spent more time looking at the audience than the player during the Bach Sonata, and every face was rapt and enthralled for the entire length of the work.  To achieve such a high level of attention from an audience, which included at least two under the age of 10, was a testament, not so much to the playing as to the ingenious programme building.

I would go to hear Orest Smovzh play again, not simply because he is an inspired player, but because I know his programmes will be interesting, finely-crafted and, above all, superbly sculpted to create the maximum musical effect.


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