Programming for ensembles (and Easter?)

Concert programming for large ensembles can be a function of diverse considerations, such as

  • the calendar
  • the budget
  • the ensemble’s capabilities
  • recent performance history
  • pedagogical or developmental needs (particularly in an academic setting)
  • rehearsal schedule limitations and learning/assimilation capacity of the ensemble (only one rehearsal per week?  or three or more short ones?  usually better to have two or three rehearsals, at least one hour each, per week)
  • the ensemble members’ preferences and musical interests
  • the conductor’s values
  • variety in terms of compositional form, structure, and proportions (e.g., single movement, suite, symphony, variations, song)
  • specific concert requirements (e.g., holiday seasons)

Interested readers may find my succinct but relatively thorough three-page essay “On Repertoire and Programming” here.

In the collegiate ensemble music setting, it is important to have regular performance goals at reasonable intervals.  Many colleges and universities tend to fall into similar patterns in concert scheduling, yet variants may be found.  At the University of Northern Colorado, the Director of Bands was in the habit of scheduling the top ensemble for brief concerts (featuring marches and novelty pieces) about two or three weeks into the semester.  This practice seemed to work well, kick-starting the semester.  At some colleges, regular opportunities for short performances of one or two pieces (at a ceremony, in “chapel,” etc.) may provide appropriate performance goals.

For large instrumental ensembles at institutions on a “quarter system,” one performance in each of the three quarters could be a reasonable plan, whereas in the more common semester system it is generally optimal to have two or more concerts per semester.  Having only one concert in a semester would either mean having thirteen or fourteen weeks to prepare (creating a mismatch with the corporate energy peaks and valleys) or having a few blank weeks at the end of a semester without a performance goal.  Single-concert programs can end up confined to light holiday fare in December and “pops” in May.  Those types of concerts, which may be nice for public relations in a non-musician administrator’s eye, are not enough, pedagogically speaking.

Following the formation of an ensemble early in a semester, here is a typical schedule I believe is generally good:

  • 12-18 rehearsals (six weeks)
  • 2nd week of October:  concert with ~60 min. of music
  • 12-18 rehearsals (six weeks)
  • 1st or 2nd week of December:  major concert with ~60 min. of music
  • 1 week of reading, student conducting finals, or other

In the fall of 2011, two special, early-fall events virtually dictated the concert schedule for my ensembles that semester.  It went something like this:

  • 3-4 weeks of rehearsal
  • Special event with 45 min. of music
  • 7 weeks of rehearsal
  • Early November: major concert with 60-70 min. of music
  • 3 weeks of rehearsal
  • Concert with 45 min. of (generally easier) Christmas music OR joint program with ~20 minutes of music per ensemble

That schedule worked out fine on a one-time basis, although the three- or four-week preparation period for major concert events was a bit intense.

The perceived trajectory of the semester ultimately tends to have a “shape” in the sensitive program director’s mind, based on rising and falling musical intensity and difficulty levels—and, realistically speaking, also on student musician dedication levels.  Even the most mature, devoted student musicians will naturally have periods in which they are less available and energetic, due to requirements in other classes, Thanksgiving break time, and so forth.

At an avowed Christian college, I considered a spring-semester (“spring”? nevermind that winter could extend through nearly two-thirds of the semester!) plan that had a single, major concert about two-thirds through the semester, just before Easter.  That program would have featured music amenable to Easter-minded individuals.  The concert might have been titled “Rising” or “Above” or even “Resurrection.”  Here are some of the pieces I’d considered programming, in no particular order:

[An arrangement of Mahler’s “resurrection theme” from Symphony No. 2 or other “spirits soaring” piece]
[Air Force flight piece]
As Summer Was Just Beginning (Daehn)
Ascension (Mobberley)
Ascent (Gorb)
Fiddler on the Roof medley (including an excerpt with the song “To Life”)
Firefly (Ryan George)
Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak (Grieg/Fennell)
Funeral Music for Queen Mary (After Purcell) (Stucky)
High Flight (Turrin)
Music for Prague (Husa)
My Faith Looks Up To Thee (Rhea)
One Life Beautiful (Giroux)
Red Balloon, The (McGinty)
Rising (a new fanfare I once planned to write myself) (Casey)
Salvation Is Created (Tschesnokoff)
Via Crucis (Ellerby)

The thematic connection with some of those works will be obvious.  Any single concert would have included only a handful of them.  The “Above” or “Rising” idea might have featured

  • a work connected to human flight;
  • the technically difficult Firefly
  • Ascent
  • a funereal piece, and/or
  • extended, lyrical, moving music such as Mahler’s “Resurrection” theme.

If the programming went in the overtly Christian direction, perhaps I would have included the perennial favorite Salvation is Created, which is musically rich and intense.  It requires focus but is not technically difficult, so it might balance any quicker, more technically challenging pieces.

In thinking of funereal pieces, the tie with the Jesus’ body in the grave is obvious.  Would it be appropriate in a Christian campus setting to include one of the many beautiful works written to pay tribute to others?  I think of Giroux’s One Life Beautiful, written as a commissioned as a memorial for the daughter of a well-reputed college wind band conductor.  The most mature, artistically capable ensembles might perform the late Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, a provocative, poignant tribute to the people of his beloved Czechoslovkia after a siege.

On Friday, I was reminded of my late father’s love of a particular song that acknowledges death.  This song is tenderly sung by a “barbershop” quartet.  Even the thought of this song causes emotion to rise within.  Seeking such inspiration and even consolation in music can be rewarding.  Such is not the only pathway to concert programming, of course, but at Easter, thinking along these lines can speak to the soul.

Please share your thoughts. I read every comment.

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