I think of programming the same way a composer or poet might think of creating something. It’s about setting up expectations and either satisfying or subverting them. This can be done on a single program, or over a season, or over a number of seasons. One must always keep in mind that an audience member is coming to a concert expecting something. My job is to begin at this point of expectation, and take the audience member somewhere else.
In orchestras our great Advantage and also our great Albatross is tradition. It’s twelve hundred years of music, and the rituals that go along with it. We can gnash our teeth at how conservative things are and fight against it, or have fun with tradition and play with it.
What’s fun, and more than fun, is where these subversive moves can take us. For instance, last week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we premiered a piece by the Canadian composer Brian Current called Whirling Dervish. Some intense music was played while the Canadian Whirling Dervish Raqib Brian Burke performed the ritual in front of the orchestra. If you haven’t seen it, the ritual looks like this.
At the end of the piece (after twenty minutes or so) Raqib suddenly stops whirling, and lies down on the floor. His assistant covers him with a blanket for a long moment, and then the two of them exit the stage walking backward, facing the audience. Then the orchestra and I leave the stage. We asked the audience not to applaud, just to be silent, and go to the lobby for intermission. It was profound, that silence, in all sorts of ways. What was amazing to me was the way one ritual (Whirling) respectfully subverted another (Orchestra Concert Etiquette).
Talking with Raqib after the performances brought the experience to another level altogether. Raqib talked about how the Whirling ceremony opened the door to another liminal reality and “summoned the ancestors.” Isn’t that really what we do in classical music concerts? In a concert that’s really great, don’t we feel Mozart, or Ives, or Mahler in the room? Isn’t this really why we play these great pieces over and over again? Isn’t one definition of a revolution that it begins and ends in the same place? We’re back where we started but things have changed.