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Engage, educate, entertain - thinking about choral programming

7 months ago

With so much fantastic choral music to choose from, how can you create programmes for your choir that work for singers and audiences alike? Robbie Jacobs has some suggestions.

In the age of digital connectivity, when scores for virtually all public domain choral music can be accessed in seconds through online resources, such as the Choral Public Domain Library (CPDL) and the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), the breadth of programming options for choral directors are wide and varied. Through music and video streaming sites, not only can you find recordings of most contemporary music but also various performing versions of pieces, showing how choirs from around the world have responded to the scores.

So many options

All of this can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormous array of options available. Trawling through hundreds of scores on the Internet in search of a previously uncovered gem can be enjoyable and fruitful. However, I would suggest that it’s neither time-efficient, nor does it create a long-term vision for the artistic direction of a choir. Instead, a more thoughtful process, which involves asking some underlying questions about your singers and audiences, can help to create a more artistic structure.

Developing a structure for programming

A well-thought-through programme should engage, educate and entertain. In fact, many choirs, both professional and amateur, have a responsibility to do so if they hold charitable status. Thinking about what our singers and audiences enjoy, and what they can benefit from, leads to programming that can be founded on a firm pedagogical basis and be the driving force for audience development. This approach contrasts with what might be considered ‘chocolate box’ programming, where a director picks a selection of favourite (or most convenient) pieces, and puts them together into a rather unstructured programme.

A lesson in creativity

It’s not just choirs where this kind of thinking can have a huge impact. Consider how Simon Rattle developed the status and prestige of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in his years as Music Director from 1990 to 1998. Here was a young conductor, using the creativity and strategy of his programming to educate and engage audiences and players. He introduced them to emerging 20th century composers and tackled the most challenging of Romantic works, balanced with more traditional symphonic music. Through this process he transformed the orchestra into an international world leader. Clearly we don’t all have the resources available for that kind of impact, but a glance at the work of probably the UK’s finest living artistic director goes to show that the three Es – engage, educate, entertain – are vital to good programming and artistic direction.

A choral case study

So how can we apply that approach to choirs? The NYCGB (National Youth Choirs of Great Britain) provides a good example. Their Training Choir’s 2016/17 programme shows how thinking about these issues can help shape the short- and long-term future of an ensemble. NYCGB are committed to engaging and educating their singers and audiences in music from all over the world while representing the wide variety of choral cultures in the UK. As part of this vision, they have partnered with UK-based Indian arts organisation Milapfest and its ensemble, SAMYO (the National Youth Orchestra for Indian Music), to explore the possibility of creating a new Anglo-Indian choral music genre.

The project started with a collaboration to perform Ethan Sperry’s brilliant arrangement of Balleilakka, an A. R. Rahman song from the Tamil film Sivaji. This led to the production of a video of the piece and further thought about how the organisations can work together. This April, the choir and SAMYO will perform a new programme entitled ‘Balleilakka’ – exploring music in the movement of world religions. It encompasses ancient Aztec music (Hanacpachap cussicuinin, Anon), the arrival of Christianity in Mexico (Ave Regina caelorum, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla), Western European Judaism in the 16th century (Ein Keloheinu, Salomone Rossi) and most significantly a newly commissioned piece by Roxanna Panufnik (Unending Love). Roxanna’s piece is a result of working with SAMYO members to find new ways to share and bring together common musical languages from different cultures. The second half of the concert develops the partnership between NYCGB and Milapfest and celebrates the colour and power of South Asian music.

study

Themes and anniversaries

Thematic hooks can be a great place to start, especially if they link to something current or emotionally relevant to your choir. Sometimes they can be obvious, like the Shakespeare 400 programmes that dominated last year, but they could be more individual – I programmed a concert called ‘Stars and the Firmament’, to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower in August 2016. Anniversaries can also generate interesting ideas. 2018 marks the centenary of the accomplishment of women’s suffrage. This is part of the inspiration behind the London Oriana Choir’s five15 project, which is commissioning five female composers to write 15 pieces over the next five years. This year is 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, and 100 years since the Russian Revolution ... so how about ‘Songs of Revolution: from Guillotines to Greenpeace’?

Repertoire to suit your singers

Educating your singers is not just about learning new musical styles. There’s a vocal aspect too. It’s important with any group of singers, but particularly with young people at a formative stage in their singing education, to keep in mind their vocal range and ability. It’s unlikely that a young tenor section will be able to cope with relentlessly high Bach choruses or that an inexperienced bass section can sing Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

Finding inspiration

The International Youth Choir Festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Saturday 15 April, will see choral experts from around the world sharing techniques, repertoire and ideas in a series of workshops throughout the day. If you’re looking for inspiration or something fresh to kick-start your programme planning, I’d suggest this event would be an invigorating start!


Robbie Jacobs is Acting Artistic Director of the London Youth Choir, Conductor for NYCGB, Artistic Director of Reverie Choir and Co-Director of Vox Office. He lectures in choral skills at the Royal Academy of Music.

You can find out more about the International Youth Choir Festival at www.iycfestival.org. More information about the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain is available at www.nycgb.org.uk

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