I have recently been in a couple of conversations about program-building: what is it, how to do it, what is important, etc. Ironically, Facebook reminded me yesterday of a post from 2016, in which I praised a student and his pianist/coach, with the following words.
“What a glorious recital this afternoon by my student…, and pianist… It was an imaginative program, sensitively offered and expertly carried out. In many ways, it represented the best qualities of the unique gifts of the song recital: honest, not [merely] a ‘cookie-cutter’ program, uniquely appropriate for the place and artists.”
Although I don’t remember writing those words, I still believe them to be true. “Honest” assumes that the performers are good actors, capable of choosing truth as needed to deliver the material; i.e., one accepts the truth of the scene portrayed, determines the qualities and personality of the character (if from a larger dramatic work, or a character-driven cycle like Winterreise, etc.). The singer personalizes in a way very much like the “method actor.” Of course, remember that song repertoire typically calls for a story-teller, rather than a singer consistently representing a single character.
A number of teachers and artists suggest that even a personal narrative, perhaps a poem written in first person, should be characterized. At times, this approach can help the performer to be even more effective, perhaps freeing them from embarrassment or inhibition. I find that those personal statements (including when one sings Scripture or liturgy, from the viewpoint of one who is a faithful believer) can be most powerful when delivered simply, directly, and with the uniqueness of that individual voice.
A cookie-cutter or academic program – oratorio aria, early English group, German group, French group, opera aria, lighter Great American Songbook, etc. – should not always be avoided, but that rather standardized format can potentially distance everyone in the room from the fresh, truthful core of the songs and dramatic excerpts (arias) selected. A conspicuously or subtly thematic collection of repertoire can fit into such a format, and that can be effective.
The honesty alluded to earlier will be more apparent if the performers at least have an arc or continuous link of some sort in mind, even if not on the printed program. However, don’t overlook the effect that groupings of repertoire, even the way the titles appear on the page (font and other editing choices) will influence how the listener perceives the experience. Giving the program a title can be helpful in preparing the audience, but a sentimental, immature, or over-used title can have the opposite effect.
The last consideration, “uniquely appropriate for the place and artists,” must be strongly taken to heart. Even younger, less-experienced artists need to put themselves in the seat of their anticipated audience when planning a program. Not only should the program-builders assemble repertoire that suits themselves, that fulfills them, that displays their abilities, etc., but they must remember their role as educators. Performers must take seriously the responsibility of building audiences for future recitals, by offering an enriching yet entertaining experience to the listener.
To perform a program of repertoire that is uniformly obtuse, remote, or unreasonably difficult to process for the particular audience in the room can be taken as disrespectful or demeaning, as though they are not expected to engage because comprehension is so far out of reach. On the other hand, a program of overly familiar, simplistic, merely “pretty” music can have the similar effect of distancing the audience from a valid and enriching evening, due to boredom.
Balance must be sought. The wise artist can find repertoire that is overall engaging for both the performers and the listeners. In my opinion, usually the risk to take is that too much of the repertoire is accessible, comprehensible, likable, and appealing. This can be done with integrity and artistic gravity. It’s largely a matter of personal honesty and awareness of others. Selfishness has no place on the program.
A final, practical word about overly intense, thematically-organized programs: if artists are presenting a series of programs to essentially the same audience, each program can be strongly focused on a single style, composer, poet, language, theme, or subject. However, if it’s likely that the majority of listeners will hear the artists only on that one occasion, how smart is it to perform for 60-90 minutes in one artistic “color” that excites some but alienates others? Not a good idea for anybody, certainly not for building audiences. I suggest that a uniquely appropriate and less-familiar cookie cutter could serve well.