Concert programming: order of pieces

How do you select the works you will play in a concert? Should there be a theme? How do you determine the order? The answer is in the audience, maximum time given, what you like to play, what you can play.


How do you select the works you will play in a concert? Should there be a theme? How do you determine the order?

I had researched this topic with a Swedish violinist for a master’s research elective at Utrecht Conservatory in 2008: how to programme live music for elderly audiences (summary 1 page PDF).

This morning Stephanie (cellist) and I (pianist) got together to decide exactly that. For this Friday’s concerts, we needed 30 minutes before the intermission and 15 to 20 minutes afterwards. It’s for an exclusive, affluent, historical house of elderly residents – about 10 to maximum 12 people in a cozy, intimate setting. We will play the programme twice in one day —- i.e. in two homes in the same town.

The piano room in the Monument House Utrecht
The piano room in the Monument House Utrecht

Selecting the pieces

We began with what we had worked on and performed before.

Fantasiestucke by Robert Schumann – 3 movements to be played attaca – virtuoso and exciting – not so well-known – best to end with it, before the intermission. 10 minutes

The rest of the pieces we had not performed but had sight read or practised together. We played each piece once and timed it.

Sicilienne by Faure – well-known, familiar – I had played the piano solo version as a warm-up at a previous concert and noticed the early guests liked it – 4’5″

Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana – well-loved – I had played the piano solo version in concerts with French horn and noticed the audience loved it. The cello-piano arrangement is much easier on the piano than the solo version. 2’56”

Salut d’Amour by Elgar – again, well-loved and well-known. The piano solo version is much more demanding than the cello-piano arrangement, so it’s a relief to hear something more beautiful but easier to play on the piano. 3’21”

Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise – very romantic and beautiful but sad – must be careful not to overdo it. 7’24”

La Cinquantaine by Gabriel Marie – unfamiliar piece but moving – important to have something that’s unfamiliar in a sea of familiarity. 4’56”

We added all the durations and fished for additional pieces to complete the programme.

Minuetto by Boccherini – familiar, light, joyful – a nice break from the more serious pieces – 3’53”

Menuett by Beethoven – similar to the Boccherini – well-known and light-hearted – originally for piano – 2’56”

Barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman – easy but not my favourite – 2’41”

Chanson Triste by Tchaikovsky – 2’24”

Songs My Mother Taught me by Dvorak – the piano plays in 6/8 time while the cello part is in 2/4 time – 1’50”

Ordering the pieces

We put Schumann’s Fantasiestucke just before the intermission because it’s the longest and most virtuosic of all pieces. After the intermission, when everyone is rested we can challenge the audience with something more demanding: Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. This requires something lighter and joyful to follow – Boccherini’s Minuetto.

In deciding upon the sequence of works, we were constantly seeking a balance —-  contrasting long with short, heavy with light, dark with light, and familiar with unfamiliar.

The final programme for cello and piano

Songs My Mother Taught Me – Dvorak

Minuett – Beethoven

Chanson Triste – Tchaikovsky

La Cinquantaine – Gabriel Marie

Salut d’Amour – Elgar

[Barcarolle – Offenbach —- may skip if not enough time]

Fantasiestucke – Schumann


Vocalise – Rachmaninoff

Minuetto – Boccherini

Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana – Mascagni

Sicilienne – Faure

Final step: research and write the programme notes so we have something interesting to say about each piece.

New concert programme for 2010

We are now preparing a completely new programme for 2010. What sets it apart from previous programmes is that it is full of new transcriptions that are equally fun and exciting for piano and guitar. We open with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo photo credit: Humphrey Daniels, Warmond

We are now preparing a completely new programme for 2010, to debut on 21st January 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands. What sets it apart from previous programmes is that it is full of new transcriptions that are equally fun and exciting for piano and guitar.

We open with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, whose 4-hand one piano score could easily be read for our piano and guitar combination. While I was visiting Helsinki in mid-November to play the duet with my Finnish friend, Robert Bekkers transcribed it for our duo. It’s a piece that makes me happy every time I play it.

The choice for the second piece is tricky. I’m not sure what to put between the Queen of Sheba and the third piece: Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Perhaps we should choose a lesser known piece, just to break the familiarity of sticky tunes, or as the composer and pianist Daniel Abrams suggested, a solo piano or guitar piece.

Robert arranged Winter for our duo, largely because the Summer concerto worked so well for us. The latter was very exciting and challenging to play in sync. He chose it after spotting a young Korean guitarist playing the fast sections on youtube. Originally written for string orchestra, Winter is much easier to play than Summer. I particularly like the second movement – Largo. How fitting it is to study Winter in the final week of 2009 with snow thawing on the ground. I feel that sweet contentment of being indoors, in the warmth and coziness of a well-insulated Dutch house. Winter has never been like this, where I grew up — in the subtropics.

I first heard Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnole from the opera La Vida Breve at a final exam concert at the Utrecht Conservatory in 2008. I was so taken by it that I invited the Spanish violinist Angel Sanchez Marote and the Okinawan pianist Shumpei Tanahara to play it again in our Monument House Concert Series. [A midsummer afternoon tea concert programme PDF] I asked Angel (pronounced An – hul) where to get the music. He said it was one of many popular arrangements by Fritz Kreisler, available at music book stores. Coincidentally, Robert owned an arrangement for two guitars which he rehearsed with his own duo. His guitar part was 80% the same as the violin part in the violin-piano score I found at a second-hand sheet music store in Amsterdam. Needless to say, it was a matter of time before we adjusted the score for our piano guitar duo.

I was delighted to stumble upon a video clip of Angel playing the Spanish Dance, with a different pianist (below).

The only works in our new programme that are original to piano and guitar are the Grand Duo Concertant and Grand Potpourri National which are long enough to fit a concert by themselves. The former was a collaboration between 33 year old Mauro Giuliani and 19 year old Ignaz Moscheles, and the latter between Giuliani and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The 25-minute Grand Potpourri National is a joy to play. It contains themes of national anthems of the countries in 1815 when it was written. So far we’ve only managed to identify Rule Britannia and Haydn’s Deutschland Uber Alles which became the Austrian national anthem. We’re told there is also Vive Henri IV (French national anthem). What about the others?

When I met the English guitarist and composer David Harvey in London in 2006, he gave me his arrangement of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite no. 2 (from his guitar duos). It’s only now that we have time to include it in our repertoire. We played it recently for my Rotary Club gathering.

We revisit another great Spanish maestro, the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), whose Fantasia para un Gentilhombre took us through all of 2009. This time, we return to his most famous guitar concerto, if not THE most famous of all guitar concertos: the Aranjuez. Robert had arranged the beautiful slow movement for himself as soloist with an ensemble of flute, bassoon, and guitar in an outdoor summer concert which I organised in London (photo below). Since 2002, we’ve considered studying all three movements of the Concierto de Aranjuez, we’ve never been so convinced until now to include it in our program.

Robert Bekkers arrangement of Aranjez Concerto 2nd movement
Robert Bekkers arrangement of Aranjuez Concerto 2nd movement

Ever since I saw Bizet’s Carmen in Amsterdam, I promised and vowed to make an arrangement of my favourite pieces from this delightful opera. The orchestral score has been sitting on my grand piano for months while I searched for interesting piano solo and duet arrangements. Perhaps my own arrangement for piano and guitar will be the missing second piece in our new programme. That’s my way of getting back into the swing of composing again.

Starting a blog of our concerts

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam.

I have long wanted to write the story of our duo: how it began, what it’s like to rehearse together, why we do what we do, who we meet, and where we end up. As we begin another season of concertising, it’s become ever necessary to use a blog engine like this one.

Monday 23rd March 2009,
a typically grey, windy, and indecisive day in the Netherlands.

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam. It’s always nicer to play to a familiar audience than an anonymous one, even if only one face was known among the strangers.

The drive from Utrecht to Amsterdam was uneventful until we arrived in the heart of the city where unexpected roadworks forced us to make a detour. [I should say that every concert experience is unique. There are always surprises. We’re required by our concert organisers to arrive half an hour early. We always aim for a one hour slack because of traffic delays and our need to test the acoustics.] Luckily the detour was not extensive.

After parking in front of the building, we unloaded the car with our suit bag, guitar in case, microphone stand, and backpacks of our sheet music. We left the thermos flask of hot herbal tea and the box of Dutch cream puffs in the car for later.

The lady who greeted us appeared somewhat unsettled. None of the volunteers she had contacted to help out had arrived. It was 20 minutes before the concert was to begin. The programme notes had to be handed out, the audience welcomed and seated, and of course, someone had to take care of us — the performers.

As performers, we don’t require much — really. Just a good well-tuned piano. Piano stool and pedals that don’t squeak. For the guitarist, a chair without arms (a literal translation from Dutch). A dressing room. Warm drinks to prevent cold hands. And clean toilets. I should also add good acoustics and a respectful audience. Somehow we never get all of the above.

The dressing room was a storage room for the kitchen next door. It was too warm to get cold hands. I changed into a puffy white cotton designer blouse and a long blue Jaeger wool skirt. I couldn’t find my new eyeshadow set. The make-up only needed to last the hour, and yet I felt incomplete without a touch of colour on my eyelids.

“Welkom, dames en heren.” I had prepared to speak in Dutch, introducing ourselves, the composers and their works, and what juicy tidbits of information to make the music memorable. There were perhaps 20 at most in the audience, with my American friend in the front row.

The black Yamaha upright piano made the checklist. But the acoustics was dry. This meant that I had to compensate for the lack of sustain by controlling the damper pedal carefully. The microphone we brought to record our performance ran out of battery midway through the first half of the concert. Thankfully, everything else was under control.

During the intermission, my friend suggested that I speak directly into the microphone. After the concert, she came to the dressing room. “There’s an elderly gentleman who used to sing in the Concertgebouw,” she said excitedly. “I feel young here. The man next to me is 92 !”

photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam
photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam