Friday 17 July 2009

I have just started reading John Lucas's biography of Sir Thomas Beecham and it has set me off thinking about concert programmes.

When Sir Thomas Beecham made his debut conducting the Halle Orchestra, it was at a gala concert arranged to celebrate his father's elevation to Mayor of St. Helens. Beecham was a last minute stand-in and the orchestra played works which they had previously played at a concert with their conductor Hans Richter. The programme was as follows:-

Prelude and Introduction to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger
Overture to Tannhauser
Beethoven's 5th Symphony
3rd movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony
Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin
Berlioz's Hungarian March
Plus opera arias by Gounod, Delibes and Verdi.

I doubt that today Mark Elder and the Halle would ever consider assembling such programme, even for a one off gala. This sort of goodie bag assemblage was typical of the programming of the day. Beecham's debut as conductor, with his own orchestra in St. Helens - a largely amateur group. The programme contained Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas overture, Rossini's William Tell overture, Grieg's 1st Peer Gynt Suite, Elgar's Spanish Serenade, Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Four Characteristic Waltzes , a group of piano solos and Mendelssohn's 1st Piano concerto!

This sort of programming was not unusual, the Proms under Sir Henry Wood consisted of rather distinct halves, with a serious first half and a series of novelty items in the the second, the whole lasting some 3 hours.

What this leads me to wonder is, when did concert programmes become so serious? I'm not saying that we should entirely go back to cornet solos and novelty songs, but with commentators constantly wondering how to attract young people, perhaps concert promoters should look at how the basic concert programme is constructed. Nowadays we have an overture, a concerto and a symphony, and if not this, something like it. No-one would ever consider scheduling a single movement of a symphony and certainly would not mix things up in the way early programmes did.

We seem to have lost something, serious classical music has become a little too po-faced. Yes, you do still get concerts full of popular mixtures, such as the Victor Hochhauser spectaculars at the Albert Hall (do they still exist?). But whereas a conductor like Beecham or Wood would consider mixing such programming with serious works, including contemporary works, no-one nowadays would do so.

I'm not sure how Sir Harrison Birtwistle would feel if one of his works was programmed in a concert which finished with Leroy Anderson's Bugler's Holiday. But surely when the LSO and the LPO are assembling programmes they could be a little more varied and imaginative. Less worried at being seen as frivolous.

Something of this can happen in early music concerts, where the nature of the material means that conductors have to be imaginative in the way they mix items. I Fagiolini did a programme at the Cadogan Hall which was themed on music from the Carnival period, mixing joyful staged Carnival japes with the more serious Lenten music. Our fore-father would completely understood. Isn't it about time that we considered this in ordinary programming

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