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My Thoughts on Recital Programming

Springtime is here! For us piano professors, this is usually the time when many of our students give their required degree recitals that culminate their musical studies at the university. An exciting and busy time, indeed! I figured now would be a great time to share some general thoughts on recital programming.

From a philosophical standpoint, I view a performing musician's role is to connect with the audience. Of course, there are multiple angles to approach in building a close relationship, but I contend that programming is an important aspect in establishing rapport. Take for instance the Seattle Symphony, my hometown orchestra that I have supported for many years. They offer several different type of concert series, but one innovative program they added a few years ago is called "Untuxed," where the musicians are dressed down in casual attire. These events are usually shorter, without intermission, and contain a nice blend between blockbuster works and more serious pieces. Something for everyone, indeed. Clearly, this organization is trying to expand their audience base by offering a more relaxed concert environment, possibly attempting to attract more casual patrons. Whether or not you agree with their initiative, you have to admire their progressive response.

In the 21st century, performing classical musicians face far more challenges in programming than we have ever before. Many of the great masterpieces that we perform are readily available in a wide variety of internet streaming sources. On one hand, this technological boom is fantastic for the dissemination of classical music, but it also serves as a double-edged sword: some might feel less enticed to go hear pianist X perform live because they have the comfort of sitting in their living room while watching pianist Y on YouTube. I think any performing musician needs to ask the tough question: what can I offer to consumers at my live performances that they cannot already enjoy from recordings and videos?

The answer to that question, of course, is quite complicated and multi-faceted, but I think one approach is to curate an appealing program like the Seattle Symphony did. Let me digress a little further, just bear with me.

Over the years, the city of Seattle has produced a long history of famous rock musicians such as Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix. In 2000, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, started a museum, formally known as Experience Music Project (current name is Museum of Pop Culture) that celebrates some of the accomplishments of the city's musicians as well as other rock/pop legends. If you are ever in Seattle, do check it out, the architecture of the building is alluring.

The Seattle Symphony, along with its current music director, Ludovic Morlot, recognized the city's penchant of popular music that they started a unique and wonderful project in 2011, Sonic Evolution, a interdisciplinary collaboration between past, present, and future. The Symphony would commission world-class composers to write orchestral works inspired by local bands and artists that are from, or related to, Seattle. Check out their performance on YouTube with rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, it is quite entertaining! When scrolling down to see people's comments, I saw that someone wrote, "this might get me to attend the symphony more."

Now, I am not advocating at all to completely blow up the norms of classical music. I am merely pointing out that the Seattle Symphony, who also offers traditional flavors in concert programming, recognized the unique opportunity they had with their community, and capitalized on it. As I said earlier, something for everyone. I believe all classical music artists must find their own artistic identity and how they can connect it with their patrons. The way I see it, innovative and creative programming is one solution.

As a concertizing pianist, it becomes an even greater challenge since we do not have the financial resources to our disposal like the Seattle Symphony. How can one stand out from a plethora of pianists in the 21st century? A few years back, I remember attending a concert given by popular radio personality and host of NPR's From the Top, Christopher O'Riley. He played a beautiful program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, but what really stood out were his own arrangements of Radiohead. Whether or not this is your type of thing, that was what I remembered from the concert. Marc-André Hamelin is another pianist that comes to mind when I think of creative programming. He plays everything from the standard repertoire to the rare, exotic gems in classical music. I heard him live recently, and he had a varied program from the known to the unknown.

Thanks for taking the time to read! If you enjoyed my post, why not subscribe to my mailing list to receive monthly email updates about my performance activities and blog posts on teaching and lesser-known works. As an added bonus for new subscribers, I will share specific tips on how to create a diverse and creative program for your next concert in an exclusive blog post.

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