Choosing the Right Dress

Sometimes I think that programming is like choosing the right outfit. You need to make sure that the dress you’ve chosen is appropriate for the event and that your accessories match. The wrong shoes and the whole ensemble is off. No jewelry and perhaps you don’t look dressed up enough. Too much jewelry sends another message. And, of course, the accessories you choose say so much about you. Large, handmade artisan pins indicate that you are serious about fine craft and art. Wild dangly earrings show you are a fun loving gal, while pearls show you are serious and traditional. The little black dress can go many places, while the large polka dot skirt can only go to the club or the beach. How you put all of these things together helps you to establish your style and to dress appropriately for the occasion. Too much of the same thing is boring while too many different things can be overwhelming.

Such is the same with programming, and some might consider it an art form, just like fashion. And similar to fashion, some artists and ensembles have lots of style, while others only blend in with the crowd. And really, some people just don’t care about fashion—musical or otherwise. They dress to please themselves, and they play what they want. This is all fine if your job doesn’t depend upon it.

Currently, I am putting together a program for several concerts I have to play in the fall, so these thoughts are on my mind. As the summer stretches out in front of me, the possibilities seem endless. But the reality is that I only have so much time and energy to devote to these choices, and, in the end, they need to be appropriate to the audience and venues. Most importantly, they need to fit together, just like a good outfit. If I choose the black dress, then pearls might be perfect. On the other hand, a really wild necklace might just jazz things up nicely. If I choose the Carter sonata, then those Gershwin song transcriptions might not be serious enough. However, Sessions and Copland—now those go well together. John Adams and Prokofiev? It’s hard to know. For me, once I choose one piece, then every thing after that has to compliment that choice. Etudes by David Rakowski and Ligeti? That could be interesting. A whole concert of etudes? Too much of a good thing.

Programming new music takes thought and consideration. You have to know your audience, and you have to know yourself. A few years ago I played the Crumb Music For A Summer Evening at the Spoleto Festival. As John Kennedy announced the piece, he talked about Crumb and the historical place the Makrokosmos III held in the repertory, and the significance of performing it in it’s 30th anniversary year. He talked about what the piece meant for him, and the impact it had had on an entire generation of composers and performers. And then he talked about his programming decision: it was such a great piece that it stood alone. While he could have programmed other pieces that would have fit well with it (Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is often a companion piece), it seemed like just enough for a long, warm, summer evening. And even though I can enjoy an entire day of the music of George Crumb, sometimes just one good dessert is better than a whole buffet. It was the right programming choice, and I think the audience went away very pleased and satisfied. It was such a perfect dress that accessories weren’t even required.

So, while I feel that there are so many good pieces out there and hope my performing life is as long as this endless summer, I know that I will have to make some choices and stick with them. If you send me a piece of music and I don’t perform it this time around, please don’t take it personally. It just might not be the right color for this outfit. But for the next party, who knows?

4 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Dress

  1. mryan

    The Joy of Cooking
    As a foodie, and cook I’ve long compared music composition to recipe building, too much of any spice ruins the flavor of a dish and there’s nothing wrong with good old homey bread. People like home-made bread. For programming it’s nice to think of music as food and each piece a dish on the menu. Some might find this too mundane, but as I feel music is a spiritual rather than a physical food, I don’t think it mundane at all. Good complimentary variety and a realization that people don’t want to eat the same thing the entire meal is essential to good programing in my opinion.

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  2. Chris Becker

    I too program concerts – I did it in New Orleans and I continue to do so here in NYC.

    I think it’s a big mistake to try and anticipate what your audience wants to hear or how they’ll react to choices for a bill of music. Well, maybe not a mistake…but certainly not that much fun.

    As a composer and producer, I seek to create experiences where I DON’T know what the heck is going to happen and the audience knows I don’t know…then we go on the journey together. And strangely enough this method – which admittedly is not totally intuitive and is grounded in experience – seems to result in some truly enjoyable evenings of music.

    I totally understand and “get” this essay…but shouldn’t we enjoy the feeling we get when we are in unknown territory? If you can quantify your program – explaining to the audience why choices were made and why they were intelligent choices – then chances are you’ve done something that’s been done a million times before. Whoopee – another “new music” concert. But if you can’t explain your choices entirely – then you may be onto something “new.”

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  3. rtanaka

    It seems like most of the groups that are doing fairly well tend to have a mixed program of the old and the new. (The LA phil, SF Symphony and many of the reputable chamber groups seem to be doing pretty well with this kind of setup.) “Themed” concerts seem to work pretty well too, even if its often an excuse to loosely tie together an older work with a newer one.

    The advantage of having a diversity of works in a concert is that it can appeal to a wider audience-base. Let’s say, I would never take my mom out to a concert of hardcore new music stuff but she’d be willing to tag along to a concert if it were a mixed program of things. We’d probably never go together to anything if it were only one or the other — because well, being a musician I hear all the standards all the time anyway, while she’s generally not too inclined on listening to new works. Sometimes there’s surprises though, like a pretty interesting interpretation of an old work, or she notices something interesting about the new one.

    Personally I think that well thought out programming can be a very good way to re-bridge some of the gaps that’s been happening in between classical audience members in recent years. Some of the best concerts I’ve been to have been a mixture of new works and esoteric selections of works from older composers. People seem to be generally more willing to try something new (or old) if they see that it has some connection to something else…

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  4. philmusic

    ” If you send me a piece of music and I don’t perform it this time around, please don’t take it personally.”

    Teresa, your accepting submissions for your concerts? Whats the address and the dates? Do you perform serial music? Inquiring minds want to know!

    Phil’s page

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