installation art piece titled 'Anti-Mass' by Cornelia Parker“A concert hall is like a shrine that people turn to for something that they can’t get anywhere else.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 154

If we’re to fill seats in concert halls, we have to present programs and experiences that resonate with audiences.

And one way to design compelling programs is to tap into topics that have broad relevance among our target populations of listeners.

The Resonance of Relevance

In my post “Programs that pop,” I contrast two piano recitals planned for Chopin’s birthday.

One program is blandly named Chopin Recital. The other, Chopin’s Circle, includes music by Chopin alongside works by composers who influenced him.

The Chopin’s Circle program is not only more distinctive but also pings with relevance because it delves into a topic anyone can relate to: influence.

Armed with such a compelling topic, the pianist performing Chopin’s Circle might generate interest among concertgoers by publishing blogs and interviews that explore questions such as:

  • What aspects of our personalities are self-created versus the result of influences?
  • In what ways do invention and mimicry intertwine in the creative process and in Chopin’s music?

Simply put, relevant programs trigger media buzz, intrigue target audiences, and make deeper impacts.

“Relevant programs trigger media buzz, intrigue target audiences, and make deeper impacts.”

Relevant Examples

Here are some programming concepts that can spark relevance. I’ll illustrate with classical repertoire, but the frameworks fit other genres as well.

  • Foiled Expectations. Eminent, highly original compositions that puzzled the patrons who commissioned them; e.g., the opus 59 ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets by Beethoven. (Possible relevance: How are we shaped by the expectations of others and how can we transcend expectations?)
  • Great Rejections. Masterpieces that initially were snubbed; e.g., many compositions by women, minorities, and even widely recognized composers such as Schubert. (Why do we sometimes fail to spot genius?)
  • Modern or Eccentric? Compositions by respected but somewhat controversial composers; e.g., Charles Ives, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg. (What distinguishes innovative work from the bizarre, and how do we differentiate between the two?)
  • Censor This! Compositions with disguised subversive content that squeaked by censors; e.g., selected pieces by Shostakovich. (How do we cope with societal constraints, and in what ways does art push boundaries?)
  • Unplayable. Pieces deemed impossible when first written but that today are standard repertoire; e.g., Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello, op. 8. (Why do technical norms keep rising, and how do current standards affect our cultural landscape?)
  • Natural Selection. Newly commissioned pieces in which composers employ the principle of natural selection as a compositional device; e.g., themes would mutate, compete, adapt, dominate, go extinct, etc. (Can music make tangible the hidden forces that gave rise to our biodiversity?)

A Jolt of Relevance

If you’re wondering about the photo that heads this post (click to enlarge), it depicts a piece by Cornelia Parker in the collection of the de Young Museum.

I first saw the piece in 2007, when I stepped into the far end of the gallery that it occupies.

Approaching the work, I was struck by its power – chunks of charred wood eloquently suspended in a controlled form that seemed to defy gravity and time.

I looked at it for many minutes. Then, I read the label, and a shudder ran through me.

The work, titled Anti-Mass, was made from the “remains of an African American Baptist church in Alabama that was destroyed by arsonists.”The Musician's Way book cover

How’s that for relevance?

See pages 208-216 of The Musician’s Way for guidelines to use when structuring concerts.

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The art-career tango
Career strategies that drive creativity
Music education and entrepreneurship
Programs that pop
What makes an entrepreneurial musician?

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein
Photo by Robin Presta