Namesake concert: getting to know your audience

We musicians categorize our audiences based on age group and demographics. At one glance, you can usually tell which group they belong to. Is it possible to get to know them individually?

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Programming music like planning a menu

It occurred to me, while choosing music for my forthcoming Valentine’s Day Concert, that the process of programming a concert is not dissimilar to planning a menu.

One is constantly thinking of the audience (guests). Will they like and appreciate what they hear (taste)? What is the theme? Should there be one? What should we begin with? Something to warm up, open up their hearing (taste buds), etc. What’s the right balance of the familiar (safe) and unfamiliar (new but risky)? What should be the order? Alternating fast – slow – fast – slow (cold vs hot; salty vs sweet; wet vs dry). What is the right number of pieces (courses)? How long should each piece be?

As I ponder over the choice of work, I remember a research study I had conducted with a Swedish violinist on programming music for elderly audiences. It’s not about tempo but everything about mood. What kind of mood do we want to convey to the audience?

Does the chef think of evoking feelings or memories in the guests who taste his menu?

Once upon a time I was told to programme music chronologically, for that’s how music has evolved. Begin with a piece from the Baroque Era, move through the Classical Period, Romantic Era, before braving the new world with a contemporary piece of a living composer. This is the not only formula.

I have examined the order of pieces in the concerts I’ve attended. Sometimes it’s good to start with an unfamiliar piece, even one from an unknown, living composer. Enough unfamiliar pieces call for a resolution of the unknown to a convergence in the familiar. Take the audience back to their comfort zone.

Probably one of the most powerful concerts is one in which the pieces are connected, via a common thread or storyline following a theme.

I should speak to a chef whether programming music really is like planning a menu.

Writing programme notes

After determining the order of pieces in a concert, you can research the programme notes. Here is an example from the cello piano concert in Warnsveld played by Stephanie Hunt and Anne Ku.

Experienced concert programme note writers will have the notes at their fingertips. They just need to copy and paste into a new document. Most of us, however, start from scratch.

Having determined the order of pieces in a concert, it’s time to research the programme notes.

There are many ways to do this.

One way is to find as much as you can about each piece — the composer’s name, birth and death dates, opus numbers, circumstances surrounding the piece, who premiered it, where it was first performed or published, and anything that’s controversial or juicy for the audience to know. Such information puts the work in perspective. Interesting tidbits engrave the piece in the listener’s mind.

While most information is easily found on the Internet (wikipedia for instance), I prefer to “triangulate” — i.e. double check various sources. The opus numbers may be mistyped and propagated. People do fall into the lazy habit of copying instead of reinventing the wheel.

To avoid plagiarism, I would rewrite the sentences and paragraphs so there is no sign that I’ve copied word for word. This takes some practice.

To make the programme consistent, I would ensure that no work gets more attention (word length) than others, unless one piece is deliberately featured. If there is a theme to the concert, the text should fit to the theme.

For the two cello piano concerts in Warnsveld, we weren’t requested to produce programme notes. Yet it was a good exercise to come prepared. Sometimes we learn in hindsight what would have been a better order. In this case, there were several pieces to do with love and marriage — Chanson Triste (the end of a love), La Cinquaintaine (50 years of love and marriage), and Salut d’Amour (the beginning of love). It would have been a nice story to begin with Salut d’Amour instead of Chanson Triste.

Stephanie Hunt, cello; Anne Ku, piano
Stephanie Hunt, cello; Anne Ku, piano

The three page programme notes can be found in a PDF.

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.