This is another invisible part of a conductor’s job: choosing what the ensemble should perform for its concerts. We call it programming. I’m currently finalizing the programming for my community choir, so it’s on my mind.
A lot of programming is guided by the conductor’s taste, but also logistical/practical concerns, educational goals, audience tastes, and the preferences of the ensemble’s administrators.
Regarding taste: Personally, I strive only ever to program music that I like. I have to live with it for months and months and months. It stays in my head for days at a time. I have to know it as thoroughly as possible, so random snippets of tenor line can bore their way into my ears and take up residence for years following the concert. If I don’t like it, this becomes torture or just a joke. Even music I love starts to turn sour after a certain amount of overexposure, but if I loved it at first, at least I can look back on my initial feelings of strong attraction and remember what attracted me in the first place.
Regarding the logistics/practicality: Music must be within reach of the ensemble’s capabilities, but it also has to be challenging enough to be interesting. My community choir, like most, has way more men than women, so the balance is a programming issue. Standard SATB stuff doesn’t usually work; I need at least some of the rep to be flexible, three-part stuff. Or I need to be able to move second altos to the tenor line.
The other thing about logistics is budget. Very often, choirs have little or no money to spend on purchasing new music. IMSLP and CPDL are good friends for this reason, as is the library of music the choir already owns. However, a lot of that stuff requires four standard parts that we can’t reliably do. So I also count on the libraries at my church, my husband’s school, my friends’ choirs… borrowing is a good option.
I don’t have educational goals for my community choirs, but when I’m selecting rep for a school choir, I aim to balance historical eras, languages, world cultures, etc. For my community choir, the Board of Directors gives direction to my choices. They like the variety that comes naturally to me. They also like music that is somewhat familiar, but they love learning new fabulous things, too. They love major works and great composers, but they have a strong preference for English language works over foreign languages, as do our audiences.
Another logistical thing for my community choir: I like to give singers a break in the middle. The men sing a thing alone while the women sit down. Then the women sing something, or just the sopranos and then just the altos. So no one has to stand up for a whole hour. Most of them aren’t comfortable standing continuously for an hour. So I program in a break near the middle. It’s not an artistic choice, but it’s a human choice; and that’s an important part of my job, too.
One other thing: Life Stuff. Stuff in my life leaks into my programs sometimes. Last spring, our concert theme was “Everything’s Gonna be A’right.” Mostly because I needed to hear that message all around me as much as possible.
So what am I programming this season? “Around the World in Eighty Minutes.” The subtitle may be something like: An Adventure in Song. Or: A Folksong Vacation. It’s a program of folk songs.
It fits my life at the moment because I’m writing my dissertation of Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Folksongs. It fits the logistics of my choir because they are public domain songs that I can arrange for my unpredictably balanced choir. We already have some folk songs in our library. Some of the rep is a capella; some has piano accompaniment. Admittedly, the English language is disproportionately represented, considering that it’s supposed to be a program of world music, but we will sing in Russian, Spanish, German, Zulu, and maybe French.
A lot of the songs are well-known: “De Colores,” “The Banana Boat Song,” “Siyahamba,” “Waltzing Matilda.”
It’s a program that I look forward to rehearsing, and that is a very good sign that it’ll end up being a very fun concert.