Programming is probably one of the most fundamental aspects of running an ensemble, especially a percussion ensemble. The sheer eclecticism of our literature can make choosing music for a concert a daunting task. As a solution to this dilemma, I have developed the following system for concerts at FSU, resulting in an audience-base increase to around 300 members per concert in just two years!
My programming approach is fairly simple-I try to play something for everyone. By "everyone" I mean the audience members (both the "educated" kind and the newcomers to percussion literature), the students in the ensemble, and also for the conductor. My system breaks down into five categories of pieces.
Something strong that really grabs the audience by the neck-usually something challenging for the students but also "accessible" for everyone in the audience; for example: Ku-ka-ilimoku (Rouse), The Doomsday Machine (Burritt), etc.
Here's where I put Ionisation, the Cage constructions, Ballet Mechanique, etc. The key is to follow it with something that will be REALLY accessible, especially if you go WAY "out" (hanging from the ceiling and playing gongs with a cactus while wearing diapers, for example-we have all seen it and/or done it!).
The "Singing" Piece
To show-off the ensemble's phrasing skills I usually arrange an a cappella work or a string work here: something like Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, the Biebl Ave Maria, the Barber Adagio for Strings, a Rutter anthem, etc. This slot is usually the one that I usually receive the most compliments about, as musically it shows off the elasticity of the ensemble (versus working towards "perfect" time keeping-yes, VERY important, but not necessarily the way the world works sometimes)-which is really important for future orchestral and band performers. As we know, there is usually very little "metronomic" playing in Mahler symphonies, whether we practice the parts that way or not! At any rate, learning to perform by "assuming character" of a vocalist or a string player, for example, is very important for percussionists, and it also familiarizes the students with music that they normally would not have the chance to perform.
I endeavor to have a guest artist on every concert, and usually place the feature piece in fourth place, unless it must close the concert by virtue of the energy created. If the soloist feature IS the strongest and most energetic piece, then I put it last. Just be sure that your last piece is something REALLY strong if you choose to close with something else besides the feature piece.
Something really strong-Rouse pieces, Marimba Spiritual, something that cannot be followed.
Now you are probably wondering why the concerts are only five (or six) pieces long; well, I would rather leave the audience wanting more than have them get bored or "check out" as a result of a really long concert. My rule: The entire concert is over in 60 minutes or less-that includes music, set changes (another concern-you want the concert to "flow" as much as possible and with as little down time as you can get away with), any talking that you have to do (introductions, interesting things about the program, thank-you speeches, etc.)-and NO intermissions-I do not want to give anyone the opportunity to come for the first or second halves of the concert, or to simply leave early. Many of you might disagree with me on these points, and that's fine! However I believe in fewer pieces performed at an extremely high level and rapid-fire, rather than more literature performed at 80 or 85% with a bunch of down time.
Of course, you can always do "theme" concerts (a Cage retrospective, opera transcription concert, a "rudimental" concert in which you can feature your drum line, your steel drum band, or maybe a concert built around world music!). At any rate, know your audience and the rest will follow. Until next time, happy programming and performing!