What's Going On With Programming?

In the May-June, 2004 issue of SYMPHONY magazine, I wrote an article entitled "For Pleasure's Sake." In it, I lamented the disappearance from the repertoire of those pieces of light classical music that seem to have been largely relegated to the world of Pops concerts, even though when they were composed there were no such things as "pops" concerts...

I gave many examples: Chabrier's Espana, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, Enescu's Rumanian Rhapsodies, Suppé and Rossini overtures, Bach-Stokowski transcriptions, Ravel's Tzigane, Johann Strauss waltzes, Hérold's Zampa Overture or Reznicek's Donna Diana Overture, Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice and too many more to enumerate here. I had gone back and researched main series subscription programs of a number of American orchestras, and found that between the 1930s and 2000, the number of what we would probably all agree were light classical pieces dropped from an average of one for every program of the season to one for every six programs of the season.

What I lamented more than anything in the article was the all-pervasive seriousness, even grimness, of many symphonic programs. There seemed to me to be an atmosphere, perhaps encouraged by critics, perhaps by conductors, perhaps even by artistic administrators, that any concert worth its salt was a program that dealt solely with the profound life-and-death matters of the human condition that music an explore so wonderfully and thoroughly. But I pointed out that charm, wit, elegance, and humor were also important parts of the human condition, and equally worthy of exploration and exposure.

Although I haven't done formal new research on programming, I do go to a lot of concerts - and it seems to me that ever so gradually a lighter touch is beginning to make its way back into the symphony concert. Humor and charm seem to be an increasingly important component of some of the new music being written today, and also seem to be creeping back into general programming. I have also seen more Rossini overtures on subscription concerts in the past two years than I think I saw in the preceding decade.

If this is really a trend, it is a very healthy sign for our art form. I can be as deeply moved as anyone by the anti-war emotions churned up from my gut by Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, and I can and do respond profoundly to the mystical spirituality of a Bruckner symphony. But I don't want experiences like that every time I attend a concert, any more than I want the same kind of dish every time I eat in a restaurant, or the same kind of emotional experience every time I go to the theater. There are times when Eugene O'Neill is just the right thing, and other times when I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change hits the spot dead on.

If we want to attract and retain audiences, the symphonic experience must be as broad and diverse as the human condition is. The art form itself encompasses this entire range, if we don't exclude a significant part of it. If single concert that one goes to is a gut-wrenching emotional experience, something that calls upon the deepest and most profound emotions inside of each of us, it can get exhausting after a while.

The idea that a concert would consist, in part or in full, of sheer fun, rather than a deep intellectual challenge, might come as a surprise to some modern concert-goers. But it wouldn't have in any period between 1800 and 1950 or 1960. It isn't only those ten minute overtures mentioned at the beginning of these comments that we need to bring back in greater numbers - there are more substantial works that used to be staples of the repertoire but are far less so today: violin concertos by Paganini, Wieniawski, and Vieuxtemps; Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony (a work I'll bet most of you haven't heard - but which was performed and recorded by the likes of Beecham and Bernstein); Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol and Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien. I hope that my instincts are right, and that this kind of repertoire is again finding its place in our concert halls, bringing a smile to the faces of audiences (and, with luck, musicians and conductors as well).

May 16, 2007 5:28 PM | | Comments (18)



I'm so glad to have found Mr Fogel's 2004 article and this newer post, as I've been thinking about this very issue a lot in recent months. Clearly, the reasons for the change in programming are complex: the rise of the separate (but-not-equal) pops concert; the reduction of television and radio air-time devoted to classical music in general; and the rise of serialism as the dominant movement in contemporary music (I'm pretty sure that "España," say, would be allowed into any Boulez-style musical world).

Mr Fogel has explained quite compellingly why the disappearance of lighter fare is to be lamented, and I, too, would welcome concerts that offered greater balance in terms of sweetness and airiness. I also have a hunch that programming the "William Tell" Overture would help to draw a novice concergoer who might then find that Bruckner or Bartok or Britten was, if not exactly fun, then still surprisingly satisfying.

One of the most ear-opening concert experiences of my own life happened at the Kennedy Center about 17 years ago, when Riccardo Chailly brought the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on tour and gave a jaw-dropping performance of Rossini's "Semiramide" Overture. I knew the piece from recordings but had never heard it live, and the memory of that string section playing with such precision and sparkle is something that still sends a chill of delight down my spine. Nowadays, though, it seems that a touring orchestra feels it needs to play Mahler in order to impress. How many Mahler symphonies are performed at Carnegie Hall every season? Well, this coming season alone, there are nine Mahler symphonies (eight, if one doesn't count "Das Lied von der Erde" as a symphony) being performed at Carnegie. And how many "light" pieces? Three, by my calculation:

Schubert: "Rosamunde" Entr'acte (St Petersburg Philharmonic)

Berlioz: "Roman Carnival" Overture (Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra)

Mussorgsky: "Night on Bald Mountain" (MET Orchestra)

And I do think I'm stretching things by including "Rosamunde" in this category at all. Now, I am a Mahler fanatic from way back but, really, this is too much. And it's the same every season! I'd much rather hear the Berliners tear into a Weber overture for a change, or hear those lovely Philadelphia strings in the third suite of Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances."

And if one actually wants to hear this kind of music nowadays, where does one go? Even pops concerts are dominated by rock stars and film scores. Charm has been steamrolled by the blockbuster. It's a sad state of affairs, for if there is no real venue for the "old" lighter classics to be played, how can composers be expected to create new ones?

I haven't had time to check, so I am going to take Mr. Farach-Colton at his word (I have no reason to doubt him). If in an entire fall-to-spring season with all the orchestras who come to Carnegie Hall, there are only three pieces that fall into the "lighter" category of classical music, totaling about thirty minutes of duration combined, nothing could make the point about what has happened to our concert life any more strongly. Like Mr. Farach-Colton, I too love Mahler Symphonies - and would never want to go back to the days when they were almost never heard. But this is a pendulum which has swung too far. For me the issue is not solely about the programming of Suppé and Rossini Overtures (though that would be most welcome). This aspect of programming is symbolic of the almost religious-like ritual atmosphere that our concert halls have encouraged and propagated. It is not the most welcoming atmosphere to many people, nor does the music need it or even want it.

Henry Fogel

I enjoyed Mr. Anderson's comments very much. I think that he has hit on one of the central reasons for the segregation of programming - the Pops concert, and the popularity given that genre by Fiedler in the 1960s. What is sad to me is that the Pops concert should never have been, and was never meant to be, a replacement for the place of lighter repertoire on regular concerts. They are just a different experience, but what seems to have happened is that certain pieces developed a reputation of being somehow only appropriate for Pops concert. As I once said to a major conductor whom I could not persuade to play an Ensecu Rumanian Rhapsody on a subscription concert (he said "oh no, that belongs on a Pops concert"): "Pardon me, but when Enescu wrote it, there were no such things as Pops concerts!"

--Henry Fogel

I too am coming to this discussion a bit late, but am thrilled to have found it. Currently in the throes of writing a dissertation on programming criteria, this thread has sparked some new questions for me:

Over the years in which Mr. Fogel talks of a decline in the presentation of "lighter fare" compositions, were orchestras undergoing a transformation in the way they offered their musical product? In other words, were they separating repertoire into individual categories for the purpose of a marketing strategy designed to maximize the number of people an organization could reached? Summer festivals (Ravina was mentioned earlier), pops programs, new music programs, children's concerts, etc...each following a slightly, sometimes vastly different programming philosophy from the standard subscription concert. Perhaps this repertoire was not being eliminated, but rather reassigned. Its decline on subscription concerts, however, cannot be easily debated.

Also, there seems to have been a rise in "pops" orchestras over the same time frame. Were these organizations usurping this repertoire for their own purposes, thus saturating the market and freeing the "regular" orchestra to focus on "more substantial" things? As an aside, the three-staged structure of an Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops concert always presented a section devoted entirely to this repertoire.

A concert is obviously a singular listening event. Therefore, in my (very subjective) opinion, the most perceptive and enlightened programs are the ones in which the individual pieces that make up a concert provide a new perspective on familiar works, establish a frame of reference for hearing new compositions and/or challenge the audience on more levels than simply listening. Any "good" music that serves this purpose is fair game.

Good discussion. Wish I'd seen it when still active. With engagement and lightheartedness in mind, I recently concocted a fantasy orchestra season for my day gig, writing computer training materials and the data examples that support them. It was tons of fun, some of it at the expense of orchestral marketing. See it here:


Any resemblance to actual persons or orchestras is mostly coincidental. But, it's a season I wouldn't miss.

I enjoyed Mr. Pultz's tongue-in-cheek press release quite a bit - and actually I too would enjoy the season he planned for his fictional orchestra (and yes, I do like the marketing-lingo titles he gave to many of his programs).

--Henry Fogel

Couldn't agree more. These pieces would make wonderful encores if nothing else. How about Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite? The Brahms' Hugarian Dances? And indeed the better suites of film scores (Prokofiev, Hermann, Korngold).

To further complicate the problem of programming or not programming these pieces, it's most likely true that music students never study most of these pieces as "excerpts" for auditions. A concertmaster audition would surely require "Sheherezade" - I say surely but maybe I'm wrong? - but most young players are probably not studying von Suppe overtures. (Percussionists do study "Colas Breugnon" - great xylophone solo!)

When I was artistic administrator of The Little Orchestra Society of New York, I programmed "Danse Macabre" on a children's concert. (Nothing new or radical about that, of course.) But our concertmaster - a wonderful, talented musician - had no idea that it featured a violin solo.

There is also the young audiences that are being tapped into. With the trends of pop music, the iPod generation, etc, their response to some of these long neglected works are dissimilar to how younger folkd responded in the 1960s and even 1970s. We heard many of these pieces in our General Music classes, many classes as such which are not applicable to today's youth. I have personally kept the piano concerti by Duke Ellington, Keith Emerson and Leroy Anderson active (2008 is the Anderson centennial, which should give him some play). These come in handy when conductors are looking for the lighter side repertoire, and it's a nice trip away from the standard warhorses from time to time. Responding to an earlier comment, the Cincinnati Pops had a concert several years back with the Victor Herbert piece for violin and orchestra, which Robert McDuffie played so beautifully.

Just to reply to Mr. Fogel, my perspective is that of a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego, and I have heard the pieces he lists in concert and on the radio quite a bit.

At least in my experience, even 10 years ago these 'light' pieces made up the brunt of orchestral programs in San Diego and L.A., and a high-rotation portion of the classical radio repertoire. Maybe the BSO or New York Phil refrains from playing them, but around the country, anecdotally, it seems Rimsky-Korsakov and Rossini still make it on the list often enough (Cleveland performed Scheherezade last summer at Blossom, for one...).

And any void left by professional orchestras gravitating towards the serious is filled by the mushrooming number of youth orchestras around the country that find the accessibility of these pieces a good reason to program them often.

I really don't think that substituting a performance of Adams' Short Ride on a Fast Machine, Ligeti's Atmospheres, or Corigliano's Welcome Overture for the Tchaikovsky Marche Slave or William Tell is a poor programming decision, either from an aesthetic or a financial point of view. It keeps classical music fresh and keeps the concert hall from becoming a museum of 19th-century pop music. Maybe the trend has gone too far, but I'm not convinced that's at all the case.

My strong feeling, having seen concerts at almost 100 American orchestras in the past five years, is that Alex's experience is not the usual one, although it is true that some smaller orchestras program a higher percentage of these lighter works than some of the larger ones. I have looked at seasons' programs of hundreds of orchestras over many years, and the decline in those lighter classics is well documented across all levels. I agree, by the way, that substituting the kinds of pieces that Alex cites for 19th century shorter works is not a poor programming decision at all. And I would never look at any single programming decision by itself. But I do feel that an overall trend of significantly reducing the amount of music that might be described as light, charming, witty, or any similar adjective you might choose, is not a good trend.

Henry Fogel

Not only do these pieces still deserve to be heard in concert; for many of them, half the charm lies in a superbly imaginative use of the orchestra. Let's hope that several musical directors and program committee members will take heed of this posting.

Out of curiosity: for most of our major orchestras, does anyone periodically check what the orchestra has actually played over the past 5, 10, 15 years? That might help to achieve more creative programming, beginning with remedying any glaring omissions which appear in the survey. Where I live, the program choices suggest that our audience is prevailingly of German and Austrian ethnic background (which is far from the case). There is an overkill of Beethoven and Brahms, which dulls one's appreciation of the many beautiful works which these gentlemen wrote (familiarity breeds contempt!). Diversity in programming can rekindle audience interest, and it may well tempt younger listeners to try out orchestral music.

If we have to use the term "light music," that shows that there's a problem. It was Duke Ellington who wisely said: "There are only two kinds of music. Good and bad." I'm old enough to remember - as a musician and audience member - when these pieces were routinely played by every orchestra. I don't remember the term "light music" being used back then. It was just...music.

Let's add to the list: Finlandia; Colas Breugnon Overture (Kabalevsky); Sorcerer's Apprentice; La Boutique Fantasque (Respighi);
Polovtsian Dances (Borodin). I could go on and on!

Larry is absolutely right - and if you link to my original SYMPHONY article (a link available in the blog) you'll find many of the pieces Larry mentions, and many more, specifically referred to.

Henry Fogel

Well, as luck would have it, two of the pieces on Mr. Fogel's list are being programmed in St. Louis next season, Tzigane and the Stokowski arrangement of the Bach Toccata & Fugue, in the context of pretty meaty programs. But I also am with Jason H. that both Alex and Mr. Fogel raise good points about the presence of "lighter" pieces. The trick then becomes programming them in a suitable context.

More recently, the SLSO's "Classical Detours" has tried to address the issue of programming these 'lighter' works, albeit more in a context that is designed to attract newbies or relative newbies to classical music. I remember also from the Detroit Symphony radio casts that Neeme Jarvi would almost always program a short, 'light' encore piece to the main program, and I got my first experience of this recently with him and the New Jersey Symphony. (The encore was "Valse triste".)

I concur but the point is less the need to insert lighter fare as it is to present a balanced program. If you are planning on presenting a work of significant weight, a little lighter appetizer heading into might set it up well - make its audience all the more appreciative of that great work. When played end-to-end the GREAT works begin to grow stale, not the works themselves but their presentation and context.

I do participate in programminbg a symphony and when I fail to balance the program I hear about it in silence, when well balanced I hear about it for weeks.

Without coming across as a sycophant, I find myself once more agreeing with Henry's well thought out comments...this time on programming. I believe there IS a place on symphony concerts for so-called lighter fare, and the historical context does give one a good perspective on past practices. In addition to the wonderful composers already cited by Mr. Fogel and respondents, my local NPR station recently played a work from the British Light Music canon, namely Roderick Elms' Four Seasonal Nocturnes for horn and orchestra. Lovely work, and would have a broad audience appeal. Another gorgeous British favorite of mine is "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" from Delius' "A Village Romeo and Juliet." Lush, beautiful and probably not programmed too often in the states.

Couldn't agree more. These used to be pieces major orchestras could do without any rehearsals because they were so well known. Now they would virtually all require some rehearsal as they are difficult to do well.

The last time I heard a major orchestra play anything from this repertoire in a subscription program (other than Cleveland doing Light Cavalry on TV from Carnegie last fall) was when Erich Leinsdorf used to program them. Espana, L'Arliesienne, Capriccio Italien, etc. How wonderful to hear a great orchestra in this repertoire.

Don't forget the American side of this category!

Victor Herbert, particularly the Irish Rhapsody.

Grofe Grand Canyon and other suites (which can have individual movements extracted quite successfullly).

Many works by Morton Gould but particularly the American Symphonette #2 and the Latin American Symphonette

This type of music takes a special kind of musician to bring off. Toscanini, Reiner, Erich Kleiber, De Sabata, Paul Paray, Jean Martinon, etc. were musicians who understood how to make music like this sparkle, much like Heifetz, Milstein and Horowitz did as soloists. Hoping to run into more musicians now who have this touch. I know a few, fortunately. I hope to see more of them.

I can agree with the general sentiment expressed in the blog entry and Alex's first comment. But from my own perspective, I take something of a cost-benefit approach to judging symphony programs. To justify the cost of a pair of tickets, I expect the listening reward to measure up. This doesn't necessarily equate to weightiness, but I am likely to shell out for Mahler 15 times for every once I'll shell out for the splashy, well-used classics listed by Mr. Fogel (Scheherezade excepted - I still love that one).

Just curious as to whether or not you've analyzed the length of concerts in that period. I'm wondering if union parameters regarding the imposition of overtime may have affected the length of concerts, with the result that the lighter and generally shorter pieces were cut.

As for Ross Heim's question, it is true that concerts have gotten about 10 minutes shorter from the 1950s to now, according to a study I did a few years ago, though I don't feel that that is the issue. Even lighter longer works (Paganini Concertos, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, etc.) have been replaced by more "serious" repertoire. And I would not blame the union for the shortening -- European orchestras, which tend to have more flexible rules regarding length of programs, have equally shortened their programs. I think it is more related to what is perceived to be the modern life style.

Henry Fogel


(Sorry, is it cheating if your son leaves comments on your blog agreeing with you? Folks, this wasn't rehearsed.)

It would be interesting if the concert programs of various orchestras, especially the ones a century old or more, were digitized and make publicly available. (I know, how slyly the passive voice there evades the question of who exactly is supposed to pay for this...) A lot of interesting trends might be uncovered if that data were on the Net.

The problem is less that of 'seriousness' than that of overuse. Many of the pieces you cite have become proverbial dead horses due to their many years of being played over and over again on the radio and in the concert hall. One still will hear light pieces that are lesser known, such as rococo operas and haydn symphonies, but the top 40 light classical have been, for better or worse, relegated to the elevators and barnes & nobles. Hearing it in a concert hall too often is part of what programmers today probably think has repelled the serious art music crowd to other genres in the first place.

I might have agreed with Alex's comment twenty or thirty years ago - but the kinds of pieces I'm referring to have now gone mostly unplayed for over forty years on many main series concerts. Familiarity would surely no longer be a problem.

Henry Fogel


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