The Power of a Program

By: Edna Landau

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On Monday, October 15, while reading the Arts section of The New York Times, I was struck by the fact that more than half of one page was taken up by two reviews of concerts that had very small audiences and that were performed by artists without major name recognition. Anthony Tommasini reviewed a performance by the Mivos Quartet at the DiMenna Center’s Benzaquen Hall, where he reported that chairs were set up for just 50 people. The review of the quartet was accompanied by a performance photo which measured 6 x 9 inches.  Vivien Schweitzer reviewed a concert by the Danish String Quartet in the Victor Borge Hall of Scandinavia House, which has a seating capacity of 168. I can well remember a time when only concerts performed in New York’s biggest halls, or debut concerts performed in one or two venues, stood a chance of being reviewed.

It would seem that it matters far less where today’s performers share their music with us than what they choose to program. I find this change wonderfully refreshing and welcome. The Mivos Quartet’s program, which Mr. Tommasini called “thoughtful”, consisted of Helmut Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Grido,” 2002), Wolfgang Rihm’s “Quartettstudie” (2004) and John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1950). The Danish String Quartet performed Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132), which Ms. Schweitzer called “one of the most powerful performances of Opus 132 I’ve heard live or on disc.” The rest of the program consisted of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer”). Ms. Schweitzer’s quote and very enthusiastic review will undoubtedly be beneficial to the quartet as they continue to build their career and it will not matter at all that they didn’t play in one of New York City’s premier concert halls.

While pondering this topic, I decided to call my esteemed colleague, the preeminent publicist Mary Lou Falcone, to see if she thought that my observation was accurate. Ms. Falcone is one of the founding directors of Spring for Music, a festival that has brought orchestras to New York’s Carnegie Hall in May of the past two years, chosen solely by the distinctiveness and adventurousness of their programs.  Ms. Falcone also teaches a Vocal Arts Seminar at the Juilliard School in which she stresses the increasing importance of connecting with one’s audience through thoughtful programming and direct personal communication. She concurred with my observation and we shared our excitement at the thought that in choosing from a broader and more imaginative variety of venues, artists need not concern themselves so much with the chances for media coverage. A call to Welz Kauffman, President and CEO of the Ravinia Festival, confirmed that in Chicago, even tiny venues may be covered by the press, especially if new work is involved or the venue is unusual and interesting. I know for a fact that Mark Swed, Chief Music Critic for the Los Angeles Times (who visited my class while I was teaching at the Colburn School), has long been drawn to concerts with unusual programs in interesting venues. Clearly, the entire country is moving in the same direction.

While it is likely that concert presenters may still be reluctant to present a large number of concerts in small, intimate venues, due to their legitimate concern about box office income and covering their expenses, it is heartening to note that they still may opt for them if they feel they are most appropriate for a particular program. Earlier this week, The New York Times featured the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “Cozy Celebration of Britten’s Centenary” which took place in the Rose Rehearsal Studio at Lincoln Center. The Escher Quartet’s fascinating and interconnected program of works by Britten, Beethoven, Purcell and Gesualdo (arranged for the ensemble by the quartet’s violist) was enjoyed by a small audience seated in circles around the quartet – close enough, said Wu Han, one of the Society’s artistic directors “to breathe in the rosin dust released from the performers’ bows and to become participants in the music making.” How wonderful that the Society opted for the Rehearsal Studio, rather than the much larger Alice Tully Hall.

Can performers conclude that they no longer have to contemplate raising a huge sum of money to rent one of the most prestigious concert halls in hopes of gaining attention? This might be true, but only if they do not lose sight of the importance of offering a program that will be distinctive and enlightening. It does not need to be a program of all-contemporary music, but it might be especially attractive if the pieces relate to one another in some way. It is always a plus to introduce a new or relatively unknown work to an audience, or even to offer an interesting transcription that speaks to the artists’ strengths. The performers should feel that they have something very special to say about the music and they should have lived with it and performed it sufficient times to thoroughly share their passion for the music with their audience. The crowning touch will be to choose a venue that will allow them to accomplish this in the most direct way, so that their audience can get swept up by their excitement and cherish the experience long after the concert is over.

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© Edna Landau 2012

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