How to Structure Your Next Recital Program

Omitting the Intermission

Having warned about the dangers of excessively long programs in the first installment of this series, let me backtrack and suggest that sometimes a program might work better without an intermission at all. Some venues (either the most “sophisticated” ones, or those not accustomed to classical recitals) have a dispiriting tendency to empty out at midpoint. Even though the more cynical among us would be nonplussed—after all, those leaving early have already paid for their tickets—it goes without saying that coming back to a half-empty hall is a disheartening feeling that can undermine your confidence.

A short, 40-45 minute program (made of mini-suites and one larger piece, perhaps) can easily fill an hour’s worth of time, leaving the audience refreshed and actually wanting more—which should be the aspiration of any performer. If the venue is OK with that, you might suggest inviting the audience to stay for a post-performance informal chat about the music, or alternatively introduce the whole program with a pre-concert mini lecture (20 minutes top, in my opinion). That way you’re still providing an evening’s worth of entertainment, while keeping things fresh as opposed to the “same old” format.

Location, Location, Location

If you’re sticking to the two-halves approach, it might be beneficial to divide each half into two “quarters” when choosing the placement of your pieces. Of these four sections, the one I find most interesting is the one immediately following intermission. It’s an optimal time for experiments: You are hopefully still warmed up and in-the-zone from the first half, and you have also had a chance to regroup mentally by taking some private time backstage. The audience (or what’s left of it … HA!) is back from munching on cheese-and-crackers and eager for more music. If you have a newish piece you’re performing for the first time, or something particularly challenging for you and/or for the audience (a thorny contemporary piece, for instance, or a Pantagruelian set of variations), first-in-the-second half is a prime spot.

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, even if things are less than thrilling with your “experiment,” you’d still have the finale to end on a positive note and leave a lasting impression of success.

Making Suites, Breaking Suites

As I have written before, I am not particularly fond of playing short pieces in isolation: I find that weaving in and out of focus to be a little treacherous for my nerves and overall performance composure. The obvious solution is to create small suites out of short pieces: For example, you could pair a short Ricercare with a more elaborate Fantasia, or arrange a triptych of one-movement sonatas. These suites need not be by the same composer—you could contrast two related pieces by different composers by pairing them and playing them in succession.

Key relations between the pieces you choose offer another opportunity to enhance the musical flow of your program: “Strong” tonic relationships (such as a perfect fifth or fourth apart) will give the music momentum, whereas moving between two keys a major third apart will refresh the tonal palette while keeping a common tone (try playing C and E major chords back to back—you’ll notice a kind of modulation typical of 19th Century composers such as Schumann and Chopin). I especially like to make my suites obvious on the printed program, using headings such as “Four Pieces from the French Baroque” or “Three Scarlatti Sonatas.”

On a loosely related thought—while the current practice is to play Baroque suites in their entirety, these pieces were not necessarily so performed in their time. In that light, extracting selections from longer suites could be a valuable way to fine-tune the balance and flow of some programs.

Next week we will explore program notes and spoken introductions.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship