Cara Laskaris - Towards Historically Informed Programming?

Cara Laskaris - Towards Historically Informed Programming?

As a performing musician, I notice that many of my fellow performers consider concert programming in very black and white terms. There is an idea that concerts must be either musically fulfilling (such as a chamber recital or whole classical symphony), or commercially fulfilling (for example, featuring a popular artist like André Rieu performing a light classical variety concert) but rarely both.

Why does there need to be such a divide between what is popular and what is musically fulfilling? Why cannot concerts have high musical standards and integrity, but still be appealing to a wider audience, rather than just to the culturally elite that already appreciate classical music? A look back through the history of music programming can provide a fresh perspective on the challenges facing concert culture today, and offer ideas for a new way of programming classical concerts. The formulaic, fixed programming of concerts today (for instance, for orchestras: 1st half short work and concerto, 2nd half large-scale symphony; for chamber ensembles: cycles featuring works by the same or similar composers) is worlds apart from the varied, exuberant programming of earlier generations.

As most people know, we perform almost all music in very different contexts to those of its inception – for instance Haydn composed his chamber music for courts and would never have had it performed in public recitals at concert halls. Perhaps the drastic change in programming that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century is surprising. Worryingly, this change has accompanied the decline in classical music’s prominence and popularity in wider society. Are these two changes linked?

We could start by considering one of classical music’s most widely popular performers throughout its history: Franz Liszt. Liszt pioneered the solo recital as a genre, becoming one of the first musicians to combine his own contemporary music with historical works. He was the superstar of his day, with a wide popular appeal but also highly regarded for his serious musical artistry. Perhaps the closest modern day pianist we can use for comparison is Lang Lang, who has rockstar status particularly in Asia, and is generally considered a highly skilled, serious classical musician (although arguably no one within today’s classical music industry could match Liszt’s celebrity status in his day). If we compare a typical recital programme of each of these two pianists, we notice some striking differences.

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Above is the billing for a concert given by Franz Liszt in 1840, at the height of his fame. Modern audiences may find this programming surprising and incongruous with the idea of a virtuoso solo pianist today – the programme is incredibly varied, not only in the repertoire performed, which is exclusively short works and extracts, but also in the number of musicians and different instrumentation. It is hard for us to imagine a serious classical musician performing such a programme today. Consider for example Lang Lang’s programming for his Royal Albert Hall recitals in 2013 (below). With the exception of the encores, he performs larger scale works and ‘block programmes’, placing many whole works by one composer together in a long chunk.

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This type of block programming dominates serious chamber music and solo recital programming today. To illustrate, pianist Angela Hewitt is performing a Bach series at Wigmore Hall. Below I've included a typical programme for one of these recitals, from the Hall's website. Isabelle Faust is performing a series of concerts in October 2017 at Wigmore Hall, each only containing back-to-back Mozart violin & keyboard sonatas. James Ehnes will do the same with a Bach series.

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There seems to be a subconscious link in the classical music industry between this type of programming (whole works, recitals focused in depth on a narrow range of repertoire rather than breadth and variety) and artistic integrity and quality as a serious artist. Angela Hewitt or Isabelle Faust would likely be taken less seriously if they performed a variety concert featuring short works by an incongruous mix of composers and unlikely collaborations with singers, as we saw in Liszt’s 1840 recital programme. Liszt’s programmes were formulated with large-scale public popularity in mind and were altered to make them as appealing as possible in each different venue and country to which he toured, by including local music or artists.

Another case study that neatly documents this change from variety concerts to formulaic, serious programming is the Proms, a festival at the heart of British classical music and concert culture. The BBC has published archives containing every single Proms programme from their inception in 1895 to present, and a scroll through the years makes for interesting reading. Below is a snapshot of typical Proms programmes from 1905 to 1960.

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As you can see, the earlier programmes are incredibly varied and mainly comprised of short stand-alone works or extracts from larger works. This only seems to change post World War Two, when you can see that the programmes from the 1950s and 1960s look much more similar to the present-day ‘formula’ for orchestral concerts.

What concerns me about the narrow, formulaic nature of today’s programming is that it caters only to a cultural elite, people who must already know and appreciate the music in question, rather than drawing in newer, less familiar audiences and considering wider public appeal. If you did not go to many concerts and were not often exposed to serious classical music, a programme containing all Bach sonatas may appear off-putting or daunting. It requires active listening, a lot of concentration, and a passion for Bach: all admirable qualities, but not necessarily ones possessed by most people outside the classical music world. In a more varied programme of small scale, but nonetheless high quality and interesting works, someone who had never heard Bach might discover a new masterpiece and feel less intimidated attending in the first place. We do have variety programmes today, but they are generally considered of inferior artistic merit and do not stray far from the same pattern and repertoire.

I believe there is a gap in our musical culture that needs bridging between this type of popular variety concert and serious conventional classical programming. There is a need for something of high artistic merit that is varied, individual, and creative, but intellectual and unexpected, not hackneyed and trite. By experimenting with programming in a truly daring way inspired by concerts of the past, institutions have the potential to draw in and create a new type of classical music audience.

Cara Laskaris is an award-winning violinist based in London, praised by the Telegraph for her “virtuosic clarity”. She has a varied and active career as a soloist and in ensembles, including as a member of Southbank Sinfonia. Cara graduated as a scholar from Magdalen College, Oxford with a 1st class music degree, and has contributed features for Gramophone Magazine and BBC Music Magazine.  

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