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?