Harpsichord News

November 1, 2016

Some thoughts on programming

A frequently asked question after a recital is: “How did you come up with such a program?” Depending on the tone of voice employed, I am either elated or frightened! The planning of interesting programs took center stage for me during the summer of 2016 when I was faced with choosing repertory for six varied concerts, a task both enjoyable and dreaded, in nearly equal proportions.  As I write this column all six programs have been performed, each designed to engage its very different audience. 

They were, in chronological order: 

1) an annual private program for a Dallas doctor who owns a lovely Flemish-style two-manual harpsichord made by the San Antonio builder Gerald Self; audience: four or five; 

2) and 3) two consecutive organ recitals in the free Friday afternoon concert series at First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the instrument is a three-manual Fisk organ; usual audience: 50–100; 

4) the opening program of season 33 for our Dallas house concert series, Limited Editions; maximum attendance: 40; 

5) a harpsichord recital on a specific theme for the one-day Waxahachie Chautauqua to be played in the early 20th-century open-air auditorium, an historic building in the Texas town’s Getzendaner Memorial Park: 40–60 auditors; 

6) a season-opening benefit concert for the Dallas-based Orchestra of New Spain, offered in the lofty music room of an architecturally exciting lakefront home with an eight-stop tracker organ by local builder Robert Sipe: audience, a full house of 80.

During my six-decade career of playing, listening, and teaching I have developed some fundamental ideas about effective program planning. Primary among considerations is the expected audience. Are the auditors primarily academics, professional or amateur musicians, or a more general lay group of listeners? What is the purpose of the program: education, entertainment, a general or specific event, sacred or secular—or, as so often happens, a mixture of all these categories?  

Too often, it seems, we performing artists, especially in choosing music for single instrument solo recitals, tend to select works that please us, but ones that too often leave the audience baffled, bewildered, or bored. This result frequently stems from a lack of variety in the music selected—the end result of programs that are based primarily on our personal gratification rather than consideration for our listeners. After many seasons of enduring frequent punishment (and, no doubt, sometimes inflicting the same on my listeners) I am, at last, exercising my elder right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of auditory happiness by leaving the premises at intermission, or simply choosing not to attend that particular concert if I have seen a program that promises little except for “too much of the same.”

“So, Palmer,” you say, “let’s see what you came up with to satisfy the varied audiences you mentioned above.”

For the doctor’s private recital I considered it necessary to pay at least slight homage to the July 3 date, the eve of our national birthday, so I began with George Washington’s March, a short, snappy piece dedicated to the first United States President, published in George Willig’s Musical Magazine, Philadelphia, 1794–95. Next came J. S. Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother, BWV 992, a much-loved early work obviously modeled on the then recently published Biblical Sonatas of Johann Kuhnau, and provided this with narration describing the varied pictorial sections of the work.  For stylistic variety, some contemporary music composed in 2014 by the Michigan harpsichord maker Knight Vernon, a two-page Rondo from his Three Contemplations, followed by the 1982 Triptych (Carillon, Siciliano, and Final) by the American master Gerald Near­—all delightful melodic, witty writing, and not too much for the doctor, whose musical taste is well centered in the eighteenth century. The program continued with François Couperin’s Les Ondes (The Waves), a piece reminiscent of the composer’s better-known Baricades Mistérieuses. The A-major key led directly to the opening notes of W. A. Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397, utilizing my own ending rather than the published final measures, which are not by Mozart.  Finally, to conclude this modest-length recital, the shortest of Bach’s harpsichord toccatas, his Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914.

For the first Santa Fe TGIF recital I chose to title the 35-minute program “Opus 133 Goes to the Opera” and began it with the 16th-century Milanese composer Giovanni Paolo Cima’s two-page Canzona Quarta: La Pace, followed by Herbert Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament. Then came opera composer Giacomo Puccini’s youthful Salve Regina for tenor and organ, followed by a transcription of his hauntingly beautiful Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly. My favorite opera composer Richard Strauss contributed the Gavotte from his final opera Capriccio, performed here with a short bit of the concert ending he composed for harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm (my first transference of this piece from harpsichord to organ) followed by the signature aria that drives the plot of the opera, the tenor’s Sonnet (with words by the opera’s character Olivier and music by his rival Flamand, both of whom are attempting to win the love of a widowed countess, who cannot decide between them, thus underscoring the main conceit of the drama: which is more important in opera, words or music?). A main reason for choosing this excerpt was the return of Strauss’s final opera to the five-opera repertory for Santa Fe Opera 2016. The program concluded with Di rigori armato il seno, the Italian Tenor’s virtuoso solo from Der Rosenkavalier and segued into the sublime Trio for three sopranos, heard this time in organ transcription.

For the second TGIF offering, a program for solo organ, I alternated the varied textures and sounds of Festivity by the British composer Cyril Jenkins, Gerald Near’s Air with Variation (yes, only one) from his Sonata Breve, a 12-measure Bach fragment, Fantasia in C, BWV 573, as extended to 26 measures by various editors, followed by César Franck’s Fantasie in C (in the 1868 version that he may have played for the dedication of the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral, plus the addition of the final Adagio from the usual published version of the piece), and both Prélude and Divertissement from 24 Pièces en style libre by Louis Vierne. As an encore, the enthusiastic audience heard Calvin Hampton’s Consonance, my first ever organ commission, given to my Oberlin classmate in 1957.

Back in Texas I played the opening house concert, program number 99 since the series’ inception. At the Schudi organ (1983) the Jenkins, Near, and Cima works heard in Santa Fe, followed by music performed on Richard Kingston’s Franco-Flemish double harpsichord (1994): Buxtehude’s Praeludium in G Minor, BuxWV 163; three short works by three composers, all of whom have been associated with the University of Michigan School of Music: Knight Vernon’s Rondo, a Dallas premiere of William Bolcom’s The Vicarage Garden (composed in 2015), and Gerald Near’s Triptych (all three movements as listed above). Since the Chautauqua program was imminent, I previewed harpsichord works from that program: Glenn Spring’s clever Hommage to Debussy and the whole-tone scale (Le soir dans la ruelle, 2006), Couperin’s Baricades Mistérieuses (which began on the same B-flat that ended the Spring piece), Water (from Five Elements) by Californian Ronald McKean (one of the Aliénor Contemporary Harpsichord Music Competition winners in 2008), and the Mozart D-minor Fantasia. Finally, acknowledging the concert’s date (September 11), at the organ: New Mexico composer Gregory Alan Schneider’s Melancholy Prelude (composed on 9/11/2001 as his meditative response to that day’s tragedies). After a moment of solemn silence, Eugene Thayer’s America: a fugue a 5 voci (from his Second Organ Sonata, composed in 1865–66) offered an uplifting and patriotic conclusion with music from an earlier time of strife and warfare in our country, based on a tune known by everyone—another tenet that I have been striving to keep: whenever possible include at least one piece that will be, in some way, familiar to all listeners.

By the time of the September 24 Chautauqua date, I had found a singer who could fill the void created when my usual collaborative artist was forced to cancel all his vocal appearances for the fall. Baritone Daniel Bouchard, a recent graduate of Southern Methodist University, enabled us to present a wide-ranging program to complement this year’s theme, “The World of Water.” The organizers had requested Handel’s Water Music, so it was with three excerpts that I opened that program: the first section of the Overture, the Air, and Hornpipe as transcribed for keyboard in the eighteenth century. Two Purcell songs (Fairest Isle and I’ll Sail Upon the Dogstar), the Spring, Couperin, and McKean pieces heard earlier in the month, and the almost-certain premiere performance of Gabriel Fauré’s enchanting four-song cycle L’horizon chimérique with the accompaniment played on a harpsichord. The program concluded with American river songs: Shenandoah and Shall We Gather at the River? The large crowd of interested folk who flocked to the stage to greet us and to ask questions about the instrument seemed to validate the program choices we had made.

The sixth concert showcased the organ, beginning with three centuries of Iberian organ music by composers Cabanilles, Domenico Scarlatti, and José Lidon. Since the organ was built originally for a Lutheran organist, I thought it right and proper to program some Lutheran music: the chorale Dearest Jesus, We Are Here and J. S. Bach’s one-page prelude on that tune, followed by the C-Major Fantasy, and a one-page setting of Gelobet seist du, Herr Jesu Christ by Friedrich Hark, who, like Hugo Distler, was a casualty of the Second World War. As respite from the organ, three pieces on my John Challis clavichord: Bach’s ubiquitous Prelude in C Major (Well-Tempered Clavier Part I) and Howells’s De la Mare’s Pavane (from Lambert’s Clavichord), ending with a one-page song that I composed earlier this year, using as text poet De la Mare’s four-line poem Clavichord, in which I used brief quotations from the two clavichord pieces. After a long intermission, the refreshed (and fed) audience returned for Jenkins’s Festivity, two Hungarian religious folk song settings by Ferenc Farkas, Guy Bovet’s The Bolero of the Divine Mozart, two American river songs, and Thayer’s America: a fugue a 5 voci.

For audience enjoyment of these concerts, perhaps one of the most important elements may be the short spoken introductions that I customarily offer before playing the pieces. It behooves us to remember that, while we may have toiled for many long hours to learn the music, much of what we perform will be new to many in our audience, no matter where or what we play. I usually try to sketch out, in written form, the main points I wish to share. We academics (and, from what I observe, some non-academics) are prone to ramble, when what is needed for communication before a musical work is generally some short but cogent bit of its history or mention of a particular unusual moment—in other words, anything that will engage a listener’s interest and keep it focused on the music. But plan these words carefully, and keep them brief and clearly enunciated!

I hope that these paragraphs may be of some help in suggesting that shorter pieces may provide a welcome variety in programming for diverse audiences. Of course there are times and places for our complete organ symphonies, great and lengthy masterpieces from the harpsichord repertoire, and the many wonderful works that are available for collaborative performance. I continue to find gems that I had overlooked, and I am particularly grateful when friends and correspondents send suggestions from their own unique experiences. Stay curious, read reviews, and keep subscribing to The Diapason.