One advantage of jet-lag is you wake up in the middle of the night--wide awake. Well . . . I don't know that it's an advantage, but it gives you some time to think and write, hence this series which I'll scatter amidst the Swedish posts.
Programming is, I believe, one of the most important—and challenging—jobs for the conductor. There are so many things that go into a successful concert program (and so many different types and level of ensemble) that it’s difficult to boil it down to just a few “rules” or suggestions. So, some thoughts to begin with:
It’s through the repertoire they sing that your ensemble will improve (or not), so this is one of the first things to consider. What’s does your ensemble need to improve its sound, technique, musicality? What music will stretch their abilities (but not break them)?
Eric Ericson has always held that his choirs were built through the repertoire they performed. He has spoken of the struggle his Chamber Choir had in the ‘40s with Ingvar Lidholm’s Laudi, and how much the choir learned from that challenge over the course of six months of rehearsals. He’s also called the 50’s the “training decade” for the Radio Choir, when major pieces (by Stravinsky, Dallapiccola and many others) taught the choir how to deal with difficult pitches and rhythms, culminating with another composition by Lidholm, his Canto 81, which summarized the challenges of that decade. Eric says that by meeting such challenges he can only imagine a better choir, conductor and chorister.
Yes, I know this will vary enormously from situation to situation! There are differing needs for a children’s choir program, school choir, church choir, community choir, university choir, professional choir . . . and whether it’s auditioned or a “Y’all come” choir. The point is to look to the areas in which your group needs to grow and to find repertoire that moves them in the direction they need. You are the one who needs to think about what your choir does well and where they still need to improve—it doesn’t matter so much where they are now, but where are they going, and where will they might be in several years.
With this in mind, I always try to think about long-term growth of the choir when programming, not just of the next concert. What styles should my choir experience? What will push them each year to become better individual singers and musicians? If there’s repertoire they should be doing, but aren’t capable of yet, what are the “stepping stone” pieces that will gradually give them the skills and experience to meet it?
For example, with the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University, which I led for 18 years, I had a choir which was quite select, expected to sing at a high level in relationship to its peers, toured regularly, and was made up of both music majors (who needed the education and experience to send them into the professional world as successful teachers or performers) and talented non-majors who were looking for a great musical experience.
This was therefore not a specialist choir, but one where my students needed to experience a wide variety of literature. As singers with limited repertoire behind them, they also needed to graduate having sung great masterworks as well as newer or less familiar repertoire.
Consequently, I wanted to make sure that a great variety of repertoire was covered in any given year, or at least over the two years that many students might spend in the choir: music from different style periods (renaissance, baroque, classic/romantic, twentieth century); music in different languages; a cappella music and music with orchestra; and some repertoire from the 20th century that would push them hard in terms of a different (and challenging) musical language.
Early on, I decided that they needed to experience some music of Bach each year—great music in every sense of that word from the baroque period, big technical challenges, and (after all) we were a Lutheran university! So almost every year they did a Bach motet, occasionally a cantata, or one of the major works with orchestra. While this much didn’t happen every year, my first year at PLU they did Cantata 80 on the first orchestra concert—planned before I arrived as part of the Luther anniversary—Cantata 191 for Christmas, and Jesu, meine Freude on tour. Major works over the years included the Mass in B Minor (in 1985—the big Bach year), the Magnificat, and St. John Passion. I don’t think any of my students who were at PLU for all four years of their academic careers graduated without singing some Bach.
I was also lucky in my first ten years or so to have a situation where the choir toured each year during PLU’s January term. This was a special 4-week term, which encouraged students to take part in special courses—for my students this became their only class and we rehearsed intensively (around six hours/day) for two weeks, and then toured for two weeks. Some repertoire was learned in the fall, but most of it during that intensive period. This allowed me to do a full (mostly) a cappella program at that point, with the 2nd semester free for other projects. It was in the second semester following tour that the B Minor Mass and St. John Passion were sung, along with the Brahms Liebeslieder with the McCabe sisters and Britten War Requiem I mentioned in another blog; Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Britten’s Cantata Misericordium; a Peter Schickele commission (The Twelve Months, which is a “piano concerto” with choir instead of orchestra); a faculty commission for my colleague Richard Nance’s Mass for a New Millennium (which we also recorded); Beethoven’s 9th with our own PLU orchestra (and a different year with the Tacoma Symphony); and Alexander Nevsky along with several other university choirs and the Seattle Youth Symphony. We also did (and recorded) the Rachmaninoff Vespers during the 2nd semester. In addition, we had orchestra available for our Christmas concert, which allowed us to combine with the University Chorale and do works such as the Poulenc Gloria, a faculty commission by Gregory Youtz (Officium Pastorum with brass quintet), Finzi’s In terra pax, Bach’s Magnificat, Vaughan Williams’s Hodie, etc. This gave an extraordinary opportunity for the singers to experience a wide variety of works.
As I said, I also wanted them to do some 20th century works that really challenged their ears. Music here ranged from Swedish works (surprise!) such as Sven-David Sansdström’s Agnus Dei and Hear my Prayer, Lars Edlund’s Gloria, Thomas Jennefelt’s O Domine, and Lidholm’s . . . a riveder le stelle (done together with my Seattle-based chamber choir, Choral Arts). Other works included Penderecki’s Agnus Dei, Arvo Pärt’s Credo, and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Each of these works presented special challenges for them—pitches, rhythms, sometimes language (Les Noces in Russian), not to speak of my own challenges in convincing them to do these “strange” pieces!
Of course, this was for my own growth as a conductor, too. In the same way that the challenges of the repertoire forced growth from the choir, it did the same for me.
Yes, I had an extraordinarily privileged situation, but the principle doesn’t change even if you’re working with the least skilled un-auditioned ensemble: what repertoire can you choose that will make them better?
My experiences with choirs at different levels tells me that doing challenging music is more often the limitation of the conductor/teacher—I’ve heard children’s choirs doing some amazing music, for example. They don’t know that mixed meters are difficult. If it’s presented to them well and matter-of-factly, they just do it.