Escaping the Norms: Recital Programming

Something I really love - besides actually performing - is dreaming up potential recital programs. Yes, I'm a dreamer, because at some point my mommy told me I could be anything I wanted to be; she's still upset that I'm not a lawyer… Anyway, because I have interests that encompass many different areas of classical music, I’m always striving to satisfy both my own artistic palate and that of the audience that is paying to be entertained. My friend Jennifer Bewerse, cellist in the Diagenesis Duo, recently told me that she believes there are two types of performers (paraphrasing): one type that plays music for the love of the music itself, and another type that plays music to connect with people. I believe I fall closer to the side of music for music's sake - the love of the music - and I imagine there isn't much middle ground. 

Easily the most difficult part of programming repertoire - for me - is coming up with a recital that is diverse in style, character, era, and sound world but is cohesive enough to keep audience members interested throughout.

The specific steps that I follow are really larger concerns. The concerns often boil down to three things:

  1. What do I want to play?
  2. What do I want to say to the audience?
  3. Is the music that I’m choosing accessible to even the newest classical music audience member?
  4. Will anyone leave at intermission? (So, I don’t really ask myself this question, but I do wonder...) 

Okay, so that's four things, but who's counting?! Either way, that fourth thing is important: as performers, we want audiences to be interested, engaged, following along even if they don't like what they're hearing. Let's go backwards through Justin's Three (Four) Points of Programming.

To keep someone from walking out at intermission, I find that a simple theme is enough four the casual audience member to grab on to. For example, when I was at The Boston Conservatory, I developed a program for one of my graduate recitals that I called “Face à Face: music for duos.” The repertoire included Zoltan Kodaly's Duo for violin and cello, John Tavener's Akhmatova Songs for soprano and cello, Beethoven's Duo for viola and cello "with two eyeglasses obligato," and Brahms' Sonata no. 2 in F Major for Cello and Piano.

This program was to be given at the Conservatory, with a built in conservatory student/faculty audience, but I was thinking about a program that appealed to Point Number Three. Is this music accessible to the newest listener? I think, yes, it is! By purposefully programming music for eclectic duos, I was hoping that the audience would find interest in the different sonorities presented. Obviously, the tried-and-true combination of cello and piano is much different sounding than the relatively new combination of cello and soprano! For all intents and purposes, it worked! Talking to audience members after the performance reinforced my belief that interesting programming results in interested audiences. Audiences that were both newer to classical music (or were afraid of newer music) and members of the conservatory community enjoyed the program equally.

In subsequent recitals, I’ve sought to mimic the idea of this unifying theme, even if that theme is known only to me! A recent performance was titled - in my head only - Opus Six and included three works: Samuel Barber’s Sonata, op. 6, Richard Strauss’ Sonata, op. 6, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major, op. 5, no. 1. Certainly someone must have realized the subtle play with numbers. With these three pieces, what was actually on display was the early compositional method of three recognized masters. Themes, people, themes!

Point Number Two is a bit more difficult to determine. In Ms. Bewerse's theory of performance camps mentioned above, I believe I fall more toward the side of music for performance sake. I think that good music should be played and played often and audiences will inherently love this good music (even if they don't). So what do I want to say (musically) to an audience with my selection of repertoire? Well, that's hard to…say. With Opus Six, I intended only to play three great works by young composers. In essence, I was saying, "What's that? You're in love with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? Who isn't?! But guess what, you'll be amazed at the difference between this Cello Sonata (1796) and that Symphony (1824) written 30 years apart!"

Other times, I have a more direct message to convey, something more concrete than, "this is great music and you should hear it." This is the point of my ongoing Queering the Pitch recital project. The project began as four separate but united parts: two parts for solo cello, one for cello and soprano, and one for cello and piano. We'll get to how I programmed the music for part one later. First, the message: guess what, y'all. Gay people are everywhere. They're in the sciences; in engineering; in professional sports; and - hard as it may be to believe - they're in the arts. Even in 2010 (when I began this project) attitudes were still kind of meh toward the gay population and their individual contributions to society. So I decided to play music celebrating these contributions in the only way I am qualified to: playing the cello.

Continuing with our trip backwards through my Points, Point Number One is the easiest to conquer. "What do I want to play? EVERYTHING!" There, wasn't that easy?! It's really not that easy, actually, but quite difficult. I love playing Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but these guys and their contemporaries are played ALL THE TIME. Traipse on over to Amazon, find a recording of the Six Bach Suites and read the comment section. Er'body's got an O-PINION. I mean, I'd like to play Bach until the cows come home, but not at the expense of an audience members enjoyment of the music and their O-PINION of my playing! 

Instead, I find it much more fun to peruse the countless number of works that are out there that an audience might not know - and that might be new to me, too! My thought process for new music: "Dear audience member. I can see that you hate the idea of this new piece I'm about to play, but I bet - if I play it well - you'll love it when it's over." Because of those Amazon O-PINIONs mentioned above, no matter how well I play a Bach Suite, somebody - a FEW somebodys - is/are going to HATE my interpretation of it. I'm guilty of this, too. Instead, I'll avoid the situation altogether, playing Bach only sparingly. (Like on September 6, 2013!)

So, what am I getting at here? Well, for Point Number One, I like to choose music that I enjoy; that is new to me or I have been eagerly looking forward to playing again; that I think the audience will enjoy; and, frankly, that I find to be GOOD. That said, just because I like it, it's new to me, and I think the audience will enjoy it, doesn't mean that it's good. See, Rihanna covers. I won't be programming something like that anytime soon.

All of that said, let's go back to the Queering the Pitch project and talk about programming. The first challenge in programming such a project was first finding composers who were openly queer during their lives or, in the case of living composers, who are/have been wiling to be known, and potentially pigeonholed, as a gay composer.

This was not nearly as difficult as I originally thought it might be. Throughout history, there have been a huge number of gay composers (SHOCK!). There are countless composers currently living who are not only openly gay, but more than willing to be known as such. The first challenge arose when searching for works for solo cello by these composers. Solo cello repertoire between Bach and the 20th-century is mostly non-existent (an exaggeration, but not too far a stretch…) and some of the more prolific gay composers from the pre-20th century wrote nothing for the cello by its lonesome.

I had a cohesive program with a built in message. This satisfies Point Number Two and Point Number Three. But what about Point Number One? This was a problem because of the challenge mentioned above. Sure I'd love to play some Bach on this recital, but guess what y'all? Bach wasn't gay, Bach didn't have ties to gays, Bach was down with G-O-D, something that modern politicians what you to believe is anti-gay (it's not). Either way, Bach - beautiful as his music is and as much as I love to play it - didn't fit the narrow scope of this project. So what could I play that I WANT to play?

The four existing works that I settled on for the first part of the project easily satisfied Point Number One:

Britten - Third Suite for Cello: In 2010, the only "standard" repertoire that I had played for solo cello had been Bach Suites and Paul Hindemith's Solo Sonata. I knew the Suites for Cello by Benjamin Britten, but I had not ventured too far in to these works. I desperately WANTED to perform these pieces, and this was the perfect place (Britten being gay before it was cool - or acceptable). I've since performed the other two Suites celebrating Britten's 100th birthday this year, in 2013. They are fantastic, standard cello repertoire, and you should know them, even if you're not a cellist.

Rorem - After Reading Shakespeare: I had been trying to find a reason to play Ned Rorem’s After Reading Shakespeare for a while. I was worried that my fourth bullet point would come in to play, and that people would leave after hearing the Rorem because, I’ll be completely honest, it’s not the easiest work to listen to at times. (aside: I was wrong. Non-musicians, non-classical-music-listeners, and musicians who hate new music all LOVED ARS.) Rorem's prolific - and often risque - diary writings made him familiar to even the most casual audience member. His was the perfect anchor.

DiOrio - Tarantella: Dominick DiOrio's piece is a lively work that I came across when Meredith Mecum and I commissioned him to write a large song cycle for us to perform on the second part of the Queering the Pitch project. I found his compositional voice to be fresh, very expressive, and thoughtful, and his writing to be evocative and entertaining. (All the Es, apparently.) His traditional, yet boundary-pushing writing was the perfect complement to the not-so-much-but-kind-of avant garde writing in Britten and Rorem. When I received the score and heard the accompanying recording, I immediately wanted to play it.

Balter - Memoria: I must give credit to my great friend, composer Joe Colombo, for introducing me to the works of Marcos Balter, the fabulous Chicago-based composer. In my mind, Memoria is much more affectual than the other three works. I often used it as an encore OR an opener because I find the sound world to be so transfixing that it can serve as both an amuse bouche or a palate cleansing dessert. It's wonderful to play and the audience always enjoyed it most of all. 

Programming is not easy.  Music has a different influence on each individual. One person, who is dear to my heart and who has heard me play countless times, has told me on more than one occasion that a lot of the music that I play makes him uncomfortable and that he finds himself sitting on his hands during performances.  Sometimes, that’s the goal.  Discomfort is just as much a part of music as the music that they put on those Classics for Relaxation CDs. Don't be ashamed to love (and want to program) a piece of music that makes an audience uncomfortable. Push boundaries!

When programming recitals, I often stick to an infallible (Fifth?) rule: would my mother still love me after she heard the piece I just played?  If the answer is no, then I should probably jettison that piece from the program. But if the answer is yes, well, then it’s a go. Go on over to FACEBOOK and/or TWITTER and tell me what you think of this blog and how we can all be better in our musical choices! Happy Programming!