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Learning to Program Concerts by Ashley Pelton

Over this past winter break, my boyfriend (a cellist) and I played several concerts at retirement and rehabilitation facilities in the Greater Chicago area. We had two main programs: one that included piano and one as a viola/cello duo. Ben, having lived and played in Chicago for his whole life, had already built relationships with many of these facilities and knew what to expect sharing his music with these audiences. I, on the other hand, was unsure of what was to come. There is so much I could say about my experience performing these concerts, because I learned so much from the preparation and the actual performances, but in this post, I will highlight my thought process in programming for our duo concerts.

We had an easier time programming the concerts with piano, because we each have solo works in the learning and performance stages. However, the combination of viola and cello is somewhat of an untraditional ensemble. Of course, there is repertoire for the instrumentation, just not quite as much as there is for other groups. Our first task was to track down works originally written for viola and cello (something we’ve been doing for years) and then to read through to find out which pieces we enjoyed playing. We then turned to transcriptions and wrote some of our own.

In thinking about what to program for our duo concerts, here are some of the things I thought about:

• Length of concert: How do we fill _____ minutes?
• Who is the audience? What kind of exposure have they had to classical music/other genres? What kind of experience are they looking for from our interaction with them?
• What order should the works go in to keep the audience engaged?
• How much variety should there be?
• How much stamina does each piece take, and what order of pieces will allow us to maintain our energy?
• Which (if any) solo works should we include to balance the program and allow the other person to rest for a few minutes?
• Should we use programs or announce each piece before it is played?
• How much background information should we give the audience?
• What pieces highlight our ensemble and which can we play well?
• Are there any songs or pieces we could play that might get the audience singing/dancing/clapping along/having FUN?

Some of the facilities we played at had Jewish residents. Ben grew up playing Klezmer music and suggested that we should play a few tunes for these audiences. I was apprehensive at first, having had no experience with this type of music. Fortunately, he convinced me and thankfully as well, because the audiences absolutely loved it! I played melodies from a Klezmer book that he had, while he improvised the harmonies and supported my sound. While I absolutely love classical music, I had so much fun taking a risk and playing an unfamiliar genre of music, one that certainly excited the audiences we were sharing our music with. We had audience members singing and clapping along!

From concert to concert, we switched around the order of our program and the pieces a little. We were experimenting to see what pieces the audience enjoyed most and how engaged they stayed throughout the length of our program.

In the end, our programs wound up including (in no specific order):

• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 2 (Ben)
• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 3 (Ashley)
• Klezmer Songs: Tumbalalaika, Russian Sher, Freylachs, My Yiddishe Momme
• Arranged Telemann Duos
• Rebecca Clarke: Lullaby and Grotesque
• Beethoven: Eyeglasses Duo
• Several Bartok Violin Duos transcribed for viola and cello

Because I had so much fun playing Klezmer music, I wanted to leave you with a video of Maxwell Street playing one of the songs that Ben and I played. Ben learned to play Klezmer in Maxwell Street’s junior ensemble. While the larger ensemble and vocalists certainly have a different effect than purely viola and cello, these tunes worked extremely well on our two lone instruments. Enjoy!


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