Concert Programming

published in the Saxophone Journal Volume 25, Number 2 November/December 2000 (ASQ website posting permission granted by the Saxophone Journal) Before sharing some thoughts on concert programming, I'd like to take a minute to report on quartets at the 12th World Saxophone Congress held in Montreal in July 2000. About 60 saxophone quartets traveled from the following countries to perform: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, and the US. Most were young professional groups formed during the 1990s. The majority of the quartets wrote in their bios that they perform a wide range of repertoire ranging from Renaissance or Baroque music to new music, to jazz and arrangements of popular music. A few groups stated a strong commitment to original music by their country's composers, and a few listed their repertoire as classical music ranging from Baroque to avant-garde. The repertoire performed by quartets appearing at the 12th World Saxophone Congress was primarily premieres of new music for saxophone quartet. The World Saxophone Congresses provide a tremendous opportunity to hear the latest compositions for saxophone. If you've never been to one, try to attend the next one, to be held in 2003 at the University of Minnesota, hosted by Eugene Rousseau. The performances of well over one hundred new pieces by these dozens of quartets from all around the world exemplify the explosion happening right now in the repertoire for saxophone quartets. Performing at the Saxophone Congress is a special situation for programming. The audience is primarily saxophonists with connections to academic institutions, so it is appropriate to the present the best of the newest music written for your ensemble, and, since most performers are given only about 20 minutes for their programs, there is basically only enough time to perform one or two pieces. Full-length concert programming gives the performer a turn to be a sculptor or a composer. Every piece of music has a shape, and leaves a feeling or impression. To build a program, you must consider the shape and effect of each piece. Perhaps it is exciting, or beautiful, light and entertaining, intellectually stimulating, simple, or complex. You will put your sculpture together with these pieces. Remember to consider the effect of the intermission. It is a convention that must be worked into your sculpture. There are many needs to be considered when choosing a program. Often, the concert organizer has specific requests, and there might be a required premiere performance or another obligation to play a particular composition. The ensemble must also consider the audience's musical needs, as well as its own. A composer writes for his or her ideal listener (usually his or herself). Performers have a responsibility to all the individuals who took time out of their busy schedules to attend the concert. The quartet must choose music that is both rewarding to play and that the audience will appreciate. It can be a complicated and confusing puzzle at times. A basic formula I follow when programming is "win trust, challenge, and reward." Whether I'm making a mixed program of music of various styles, or a more homogeneous program of all contemporary music or all classical music, I keep this formula in mind. Another important principle is to keep the concerts from being too long. The first half should be 45-50 minutes long (including breaks between movements and pieces), with the second half a bit shorter. The more difficult the music, the shorter the concert should be. Remember the old adage, "leave them wanting more." Before a quartet can make concert programs, it needs a list of repertoire from which to choose. As you read through music, keep a list of pieces all four members of your quartet like. There is enough repertoire for saxophone quartet that you don't need to play anything someone in your group really does not enjoy playing. It should be possible to make a relatively large list of pieces all four players want to play. Write down the duration of the pieces you might choose to perform, and describe the style, including how each piece begins and ends. Read new music as often as possible and keep a record of your impressions. When you look back over these notes, you'll see your ensemble's repertoire emerge naturally from the musical tastes of the members. You'll have a pool of repertoire from which to build your concert programs, and you will also see more clearly exactly what type of audiences your ensemble is best-suited to perform for. Using the same music as an example, look at the very straightforward musical phrase structure. There is an eight-bar phrase with two four-bar sub-phrases both basically at piano with rising and falling shapes, which the composer's dynamics remind us to follow. The next phrase is marked mezzo forte and begins with the same rhythms and shape of the previous phrase, but is then extended at the end into a nine-bar phrase, reaching a peak of forte in the eighth bar. Again, it works to just begin the second phrase at mezzo forte and let the dynamics follow the contour of the melodic line, with a push to forte towards the end of the phrase. Be careful not to overdo the mezzo forte and forte, too, since there is a very long way to go. We're only on page three in the score of a 21-page first movement! Between rehearsal number one and two there are two phrases of similar length and shape, with the second a bit louder than the first, leading up to the end of the second phrase. If you play the long phrases rather than concentrating on all the little crescendos and decrescendos, your interpretation of the piece will be much less choppy and more enjoyable for your listeners. Suppose your quartet is engaged for a performance on a summer concert series for which the audience is the general public, and the organizer requests a varied program of classical and jazz. Pull out a group of pieces from your repertoire list that would be suitable for both the audience and situation. This list should be larger than your final program. Now the real fun begins. Try beginning the program with a shorter work that you believe your ensemble plays particularly well. Even though it is the year 2000 and there are dozens of saxophone quartets performing all around the world, it is often the case that many members of the audience have never heard a saxophone quartet before. It has been my experience that it is best not to begin the concert with your magnificent 20-minute masterpiece. End the first half with that. The first piece on a program is in some sense a warm-up, because the audience needs to get used to the ensemble's sound. Next, you might play one more short work that you believe the audience is sure to love, or you can launch into a longer piece. It's a little too early on the program to take big chances, so continue with something you're sure will work well. By the end of your second piece, you will have won the audience's trust. You must try out new pieces so that your repertoire can develop, but I've found that it's best to include only one new untried piece on a program, whenever possible. This might be a good time to take a risk. You can follow that with the intermission or with another short piece that you're sure will be a winner. You might decide to start the second half with another classical transcription, but then move into a jazz set. If you challenged the audience a bit during the first half, reward them on the second half. If you stuck with sure hits so far, consider putting something challenging early in the second half. Then finish off with your jazz hits and perhaps some fun ragtime numbers. Maybe you have a challenging jazz piece in your repertoire. It might be the perfect opener for the second half, followed by your tried and true repertoire of jazz and then lighter works. Look over your program carefully. How long is it? Is it varied enough? Too varied? Would you enjoy listening to the music in that order? Are there awkward stylistic changes, or do the pieces follow one another well? Listen through the program quickly in your imagination. If your ensemble is less interested in performing varied programs, and more committed to one particular style of music, the programming principles mentioned above still apply. There are many concert settings for which a more homogenous sort of programming is suitable. You might be hired for a serious classical chamber music concert. In this case, perhaps you would begin with one or two shorter works followed by a longer standard repertoire work followed by intermission. First on the second half, present your exciting newly-commissioned work, followed by a major work that you've successfully performed many times. Be careful to keep the program from getting cluttered with too many pieces. Remember, string quartets often present only three works on a concert. This is also an excellent model for saxophone quartets, but it requires three works of substantial length and quality. Saxophone quartets are well aware that our repertoire needs more major works, so that we will have more programming options for serious festivals, and we're all working on commissioning large-scale works. If your ensemble performs exclusively contemporary music, the formula "win trust, challenge, and reward" still works! If you have a local concert series and the luxury of presenting regular performances for a home audience, you can experiment with innovative programming. You can present some more homogeneous programs within a varied series of programs. Last season the Amherst Saxophone Quartet experimented with an all-Renaissance program that included not only transcriptions of music by Josquin Desprez, but newer original works for saxophone quartet that include references to Renaissance music. It was a fun program to build and a huge hit with the audience. The program used Renaissance music to frame the 20th century works, and also followed the programming principles outlined above. Another program I constructed of American music included a variety of styles and instrumentation. Some pieces, for example, added piano or used a combination of saxophones different from the standard soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. For that program, the formula of beginning with a shorter work, followed by some more challenging music, then some sure-to-work music before intermission worked very well. The second half began with a world premiere, followed by music that we were certain the audience would enjoy. For this program, that was the perfect position for the premiere. It is possible to vary a program so much that it becomes confusing. A review of a concert of all contemporary music I was involved with years ago complained that it was like "spending an evening with a barrel of monkeys." The reviewer liked the individual pieces, but the stylistic shifts were too great and too abrupt. Looking back on that program now, I can see that re-arranging the order of the pieces and giving more careful consideration to the flow and shape of the program would have resulted in a much more enjoyable listening and playing experience. Programming is as important as the choice of repertoire and performance of it, and I'm convinced it's a lifelong learning process. I hope some of my suggestions help you with your programming. —Susan Fancher