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Choirs Conducting

Thematic concert programmes: worth the hassle?

Conductors…do not always know how to shape a meaningful whole out of smaller pieces…We often program according to some vague theme or chronological order, perhaps without real thought to or justification for our choices.

I feel, as they say, seen. The themed programme is a staple of choral concerts the world over, and yet it can often feel unsatisfying. So convinced are we of the need to theme an evening’s musical offering, to weave it tightly together to make a cogent whole, that we can often end up in an uncomfortable straitjacket. I find myself casting around for something that hasn’t already ‘been done’ in order to justify a selection of music. But is it really necessary, and can we avoid the hassle that the themed programme so often entails?

Why we use themes

The obsession with themes tends to manifest in classical choirs, and rather less so in orchestras. Partly that’s because orchestras deal on the whole in much larger chunks of music. The standard orchestral concert programme requires an overture, a concerto, and a symphony – three items, increasing in length, and usually filling up a couple of hours quite neatly. There’s often simply no need for any kind of external bracket to unify the music. Job done.

Choirs, on the other hand, have additional considerations, at least when performing on their own, or with a single accompanying instrument. The most obvious is the endurance level of the singers, reckoned generally to be lower than that of most orchestral instruments. The other is the available corpus of music, ranging from miniatures to epics, but often on the shorter side, especially where sacred music is concerned.

To compensate for the lumpy proportions of the music, choral programmes have embraced the extra-musical linking device of the theme. We want audiences to feel that what they’re hearing is a cogent hour or so’s music, and that it hangs together with some kind of consistency.

It comes from a hyper-awareness of an audience, wanting to provide them with a guide, a narrative thread, that will give them a route in to understanding and appreciating the music that the choir has prepared.

Advantages of the themed programme

A theme offers this curated experience, taking the listener lightly by the hand and leading them on a tour of whatever it is that’s being explored. A theme, whether loose or tightly-concentrated, provides a prism through which to view the music, a way to help understand and contextualise it.

Additionally, juxtaposition of items is a powerful tool to illuminate connections in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the most seemingly unlikely of segues can yield great insights into compositional process or musical sentiment. There was a recent, thrilling example of this in one of the BBC Proms’ eerily audience-less concerts this summer – Simon Rattle led the LSO straight from a Gabrieli canzona into Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a striking and unpredictable segue which played up the dramatic contrasts of groups of instruments in both pieces.

Of course, juxtaposition of this sort need not be confined to the themed programme per se. But another reason we value a unifying extra-musical element is that it provides an entry point, especially to non-specialists or those less familiar with the genre of music on offer. Even the presence of just one or two words, nominally applying to all the pieces in a concert, allows someone with little experience of listening to a particular kind of music to find ways to apply these descriptors, and find a way in.

Problems with themes

However, it’s very easy to get bogged down in a theme, or for these themes to become tired and lazy through unthinking repetition. It has become a standing joke in choral circles (if not a particularly hilarious one) that a newly-formed chamber choir will specialise in early music, new music, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell.

When inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be all to easy to pick a well-worn trope and use it as the basis for a programme – or to try and squeeze pieces into a theme that don’t belong there. Audiences can be forgiving (especially if you do this with a wink!), but it’s awkward when a piece is shoehorned into a programme where it doesn’t belong. Constructing a programme within a restrictive theme can be like playing Tetris in four dimensions.

Equally, in the desire to present a theme which hasn’t been ‘done’, it can quickly get quite abstruse. I remember thinking myself very clever for a segment of a Christmas concert which I entitled ‘The Three Kings’ and populated with music by Caspar Othmayr, Melchior Hoffman, and Balthasar Resinarius. I might have been royally pleased with myself – but did it add anything apart from being a little glib?

I sometimes think the use of themes in this heavy-handed way betrays a rather patrician lack of trust in the audience. Do we really feel that audiences can’t handle a programme which is simply a selection of music we want to perform? The enthusiasm gained on our part is surely much more valuable to the success of the concert.

In these situations, why don’t we simply free ourselves from the strictures of the theme – let ourselves off the hook a little? After all, audiences are rarely thinking about the intricacies of a programme when listening to it as much as we are when assembling it. Better to embrace this sometimes and simply say: here is some music that we think represents us right now. We hope you enjoy it.

There’s a palpable sense of relief in casting aside that unworkable theme and replacing it with the answer to the question: what do the ensemble and I actually want to perform at the moment? The results of investigating that question could be of much more value than a too-clever theme.

Teach without being didactic

Ultimately, I like to leave an artistic event, be it a concert or a visit to a gallery, feeling cleverer – but not simply because I’ve been taught something, but because I’ve figured it out for myself. I think the most successful programmes are ones that gently lead an audience to work something out on its own – figure out a connection, understand a form.

That’s one of the reasons the much-maligned chronological programme remains useful. Art galleries still generally arrange works in chronological order from early to late, and that works for us – we notice the developments in style and form, even if we don’t have specialised training. The clever curator leaves clues so that we can teach ourselves what they want us to learn from the exhibition.

In live performance, we know that even the most carefully-designed programme only comes to life if it is presented engagingly. When I first started programming and conducting concerts, I was very determined that the music should speak for itself. I remained resolutely tight-lipped as my meticulously planned programme segued imperceptibly from one piece to another. I’m sure there are times when this approach can work, but now I think it can alienate as much as it can draw in, especially with a new listener. These days – depending on the programme and the place and all sorts of other factors – I’m generally much more comfortable interrupting the musical flow at intervals to speak to the audience and offer a few thoughts on what to listen for, or how.

Clearly, these extra-musical elements are important, especially to those new to the form. It’s interesting that some of the most successful and artistically interesting choral presentations to come out of the Year of Hell that is 2020 have involved a heavy dose of narrative, implied or actual: Marian Consort’s sequence of collaborative filmed projects, or Stile Antico’s recent Journey of the Mayflower.

The challenge, then, is to find extra-musical narratives, be they thematic or otherwise, which help us generate programmes that we are actually excited about performing, and that audiences will find energising and informative.