Programming can be an interesting concept. When you think about things from an audience perspective, what is it that we want to hear? Do we want to be both excited and challenged all in the same concert? How can the performers/directors choose a program that can please everyone? Is that even possible? In an ensemble scenario (i.e. an orchestra where the personnel stays the same or changes only minimally from one piece to the next), how much do you have to take into account the performers ability/stamina? This concept is something I spent a lot of time thinking about in preparation for my own recital. Pushing myself is one thing, pushing a large number of others can be a different issue.
Last week’s orchestra concert that included Strauss’s Don Juan and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture on the same half of the same concert left me pondering some issues. Both of these works are prominent in the western repertoire, standing out as “heavy lifting” type works. In other words, neither are pieces to be taken lightly. Both require an intense respect for the music. My professor (Dr. Dan Moore) recently made a statement about Bach that I think can apply aptly to both of these works, “…it’s like a motorcycle, if you lose respect or concentration for one minute, you’re gonna’ be thrown.”
The programmatic aspects of both the Strauss and the Berlioz lend towards the unexpected. This means that the performers have to be very well acquainted with the events within the piece in order to successfully navigate the ink. Even at that, the performer (or collective performers in the case of an orchestra) has to be concentrating at all times in order to know exactly what is happening at any given time. As a percussionist, I am well adjusted to the idea of counting for an unmentionable number of measures in between playing a cymbal crash here or a bass drum note there. Typically, pieces are broken logically into rehearsal numbers that line up to sections in the music, allowing for ease in following long instances of tacet. Even with this, the Straus was not easily navigated. The Berlioz (immediately preceding the Strauss), was a lot easier to navigate but is a very busy work to play. When these two works are put back to back, demand on the performers goes up tremendously.
I can only speculate about the other sections. For me, the biggest challenge in orchestral works is not the physical aspect of playing. There are many instances in percussion that involves serious physical stamina. Orchestral playing seems to physically require a fine touch, but more mental fortitude than anything else. As I watch other sections play, I wonder how it is for them. Strings look as if there is a respectful amount physicality to deal with, and I know the muscle stamina in the embouchure for wind players can be a challenge during lengthy stints of playing. It makes me curious to know what the experience is like for these players. Does the back to back performance of two long and challenging works falter from when programmed together, or does the added challenge of presenting two hard pieces together excite the performer enough to properly prepare, knowing what is in store for them?
All this to say, last Wednesday, the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra attacked both Strauss and a double shot of Berlioz (I have yet to mention the second half of the program that included Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra). Roman Carnival (which started to the show) seemed to warm the audience up quite nicely as the applause was equal to the energy of the piece. Moving straight into Don Juan, the audience seemed to respond with the same enthusiasm, filling the IMU Main Lounge with an extended and exuberant round of applause. In this case, for any number of variables, the programming seemed to play very well to the audience at hand. The performers stepped up and took the challenge and the works soared to an exhilarating high. My hat’s off to you, Dr. Jones.