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Three Ways to Build a Program

We’ve talked about some guidelines to keep in mind when crafting a new program — but what are some criteria to actually make a good one?

1. The Ecumenical Approach

Also known as the Senior Recital Program: a bit of everything, with selections from all major stylistic periods (for the uninitiated: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary). Nothing wrong with that, but even this kind of “catch all” program can greatly benefit from some thematic cohesion. For instance, you could fashion a program of music all coming from a particular country, or only program pieces that share folk-music influences. Ecumenical programs can be especially good for general, non-specialized audiences, but risk running into the “gee, not another greatest hits recital” reaction from a more seasoned crowd.

2. The Highly-Specialized Approach

An obvious counterpart to the Ecumenical approach above, highly specialized programs focus on a single repertoire, sometimes even on a fraction thereof. Examples: an all-Bach program, or one featuring only British Music from the 1980s. Needless to say, the risk here lies in the lack of variety: only the most hardcore of music lovers will enjoy the fine shades within such monochromatic selections. If you want to go this way, make sure to weigh the individual pieces in terms of tempo, character, and overall heft, ensuring the totality of the program has some kind of ebb and flow. It can be done, and it can be tremendously rewarding.

3. Hybrid/Thematic Approaches

These latter types are the ones I find the most fun. They can feature music from one or more stylistic periods, but the emphasis is placed on the inter-textual discourse between the pieces. The critical aspect lies in actually finding good themes that run through the pieces—avoid, as one of my teachers once warned me, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Music and politics, once again folk-music derivations, actual quotations or derivative works, music inspired by other arts: the list is basically endless. To be clear—themes don’t necessarily need to run through all pieces. Sometimes they’re best used to set pieces against each other—for instance in a program two main themes, each theme linking the works in each half.

More complex relations can of course be set up: the first piece might be linked thematically with the second, but share its country of origin with the fourth, which is in turn related with the finale…you get the picture. Once you make these links clear to your audience through some choice words, whether written or spoken, they will have something else to follow in addition to your interpretations. The web of cross-relations I am suggesting, rather than a scattershot collection of pieces, is one of the best ways to ensure a varied yet cohesive program, one that will enthrall the crowd and make your performance even more memorable.

Speaking of memorable performances, I remember a recital by cellist Bonnie Hampton in San Francisco a few years ago. Hampton is a champion of contemporary music, and has performed most if not all major cello works of the past century. What she did that night was sheer genius: she presented six modern works for solo cello, each introduced by one of the preludes from the six Bach Cello Suites. The resulting dialogue between past and present was simply fantastic, and the setup made each piece resonate in a new and powerful way.

Next week, some tips and tricks on program flow, optimization, and more…

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