22 January 2018

The Art of Programme Planning

Programme planning is a much underrated, misunderstood and, sadly, rarely practised art.  It’s certainly not something which most instrumental or vocal teachers seem to think worth bothering with, if the endless stream of uninspired and uninspiring programme choices presented for diploma examinations is anything to go by.  For decades as a music examiner I maintained the forlorn hope that a candidate would present a programme which, by its very content and construction, would make me really want to listen to the performance; but I don’t recall it happening more than a handful of times during the several thousand diploma examinations I sat through.  The mantra seemed to be; if you can play it, perform it.  Soul-destroying successions of tired piano restatements of the unenticing sequence of HanBachatti, Mozaydoven, Chopussy were the order of the day, and candidates (and their teachers), if they thought about programme planning at all, seemed to think such desultory thinking was going to impress the examiners.  I can tell you, such programmes were pretty well doomed from the start and could only succeed if the performance itself was something exceptional. 

Of course the examinations boards didn’t help by giving no guidance whatsoever.  In the case of Trinity, the instruction was to present a “balanced programme”, which is as good as saying nothing at all.  And examiners got no guidance either, and what was a balanced programme for one was not for another.  No wonder candidates played safe with predictable and uninspiring programme choices; it would be just your luck to spend hours devising a tantalising sequence of Hindemith, Zipoli, Cage and Franck only to be faced by an examiner who believed that a programme built around a staple of the repertory was the only way to attain balance.  I did everything in my power to get students and their teachers at least to think about programme planning and not simply to put down their party-pieces in an unmusical chronological sequence, but I was fighting a losing battle, and usually by the time anyone came to me asking for advice, it was too late and with the diploma looming, the opportunity to learn something new to fit into an exciting programme had passed.  Does anybody even learn a piece of music so that it can form part of a tantalising and distinct musical programme?  It is for this reason, more than anything else, that the world of classical music stagnates around the repertory of the accepted “great” composers, and rarely ventures (in a live concert) along the byways of wonderful yet unrecognised musical invention.

If teachers don’t teach programme planning and students do not think about it, is it any wonder so many professional concert programmes are unenticing?  Of late, orchestras seem to have woken up to the value of programme planning, and while there is still plenty of mileage in the safe old sequence of Overture, Concerto and Symphony (it does, after all, work very satisfactorily so far as the audience is concerned – and they are the ones that matter), it is good to see most orchestras moving away from the hoary old chestnuts in order to create themed and coherent concert experiences.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was finding the connecting thread between the works chosen for a concert, drawing the thread together in my notes, and then devising both a title and a short descriptive blurb to put into the marketing materials.  I was lucky, the Music Directors with whom I worked understood successful programme planning, and I was rarely lost for ideas in drawing all the works together under a general theme.  I think, however, I might have a few headaches were I invited to do something similar for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (unlikely – I am clearly persona non grata with them!).  Obviously their marketing people face a terrible struggle in finding coherent threads in many of their concerts, and concert titles often are little more than a list of works and/or artists featured.  The trouble is, while they have shown some imaginative repertory choices in recent seasons, they do not always create coherent concert programmes.

Last week, for example, we had a concert with the clumsy title “Scheherazade – Kari Kriikku”.  But what other title was possible?  It comprised just two works, both of almost identical proportions, both featuring a prominent part for a solo instrument, but both so musically disconnected that the only word to describe the programme was “eccentric”, and I doubt anyone would have allowed that to be put in the marketing materials.

The thinking clearly followed the tried and tested recipe of sugaring the pill of a contemporary work by placing it in the same programme as something hugely popular.  But – and here was an act of almost mind-numbing eccentricity – they put Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade first and the Singapore premiere of Kimmo Hakola’s Clarinet Concerto second.  Cue the exodus of a sizeable chunk of the audience after interval drinks.  Yet, they could hardly reverse the order, since the Concerto ends with such an outrageous display of showmanship (brilliantly executed by the astonishing talent of Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku) that anything after it would have been a terrible anti-climax.

In such a programme, something is bound to be the loser, and I’m afraid it was Scheherazade which wallowed around with such extremely eccentric tempi that it was difficult to follow any narrative thread.  Igor Yuzefovich, the usually stunning SSO leader, seemed a little out of sorts with such eccentric speeds, and the sultry, exotic, sensuous violin solos were just too urgent and fussy.  The undoubted winner was the Hakola, which pretty well erased any lingering memories of Scheherazade – not least when, in honour of Kriikku’s unstoppable dancing feet (he refused to play an encore, choosing instead to do a little more tap dancing on stage), Yuzefovich led the orchestra off stage with a little dance of his own.  Good programme planning is not about eclipsing one work with another.

The Hakola is an eccentric work, full of fun and bristling with musical, aural, virtuoso and dramatic display, but it is just 40 minutes long.  That’s long enough for any clarinet concerto (is there a longer one?  I don’t think so.) but not long enough to sustain an entire programme.  So what to put with it?  Scheherazade didn’t work because it was just too different musically but too equal in terms of proportion, so the audience had no idea on which work to pin their main focus.  Given the vast scope of the Hakola, one felt that a first half made up of short and snappy pieces would have been more appropriate.  Gershwin, Grainger and Grieg could have worked well, and maybe carefully chosen Telemann and Vivaldi would have made for an attention-grabbing programme on paper.  Perhaps some Sibelius to give the programme a Finnish feel, or some Steve Reich to keep it up to date.  And how much fun it would have been for the marketing people to devise a title for any of those.

The fact remains that for all the dazzling brilliance of the Concerto and its performance, there was a slightly strange taste left in the mouth after the concert, which was the result of a bit of programme planning which just did not work.

(You can read my Straits Times review of the concert here; http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/motley-crew-in-harmony)

1 comment:

  1. Although this may not mean much to some of your followers, it will to you, Marc. After a local charity concert on Good Friday last year, a young organist acquaintance (who had been accompanying the singers and playing a couple of seasonally appropriate solo items) proudly waved in my face his copy of Novello's organ album: 'Festal Voluntaries: Lent and Passiontide', telling me that he had given a recital comprising of all the pieces contained therein....