Question: Programming or Playing?

A concert Miss Mussel reviewed last week brought a fundamental question to the fore:

Which is more important: the program or the playing?

Audience: Would you go hear a great ensemble even if you weren’t that keen on the pieces or is repertoire the deciding factor?

Reviewers: Does imaginative programming trump less-than-excellent playing or is it all about the execution no matter how boring the program is?

Performers: Will a boring program adversely affect your playing or are you able to rise above?

Miss Mussel’s thoughts on the matter are, in a nutshell: as a civilian, it’s program over everything, as a journalist, execution is slightly more important but still a secondary interest on the grounds that shit is still shit even if it sparkles.

Over to you….


  1. Stephen Llewellyn

    Hmm. The performers trump the piece I believe in that I would much rather go to hear,say, the Emerson Quartet play a work I don’t particularly care for than a crappy performer wreck a sublime piece. There is always a chance that a great performance will change my mind about a work I have hitherto avoided. Yes, shit is still shit but perhaps what I thought was shit turns out to be a fine Cuban cigar!

    • Miss Mussel

      You’re on to something with the Cuban cigar. The unexpected discovery is always a pleasure and I’m willing to hear quite a lot of boring to experience it.

      Great playing can make me dislike something less. Everything in is flexible, including my taste, so if a performer or ensemble can make a case for it, I’m open….but I have to be pretty sure before I’d travel any distance…so maybe I’m not really that open. Hmmm…

  2. Nicole

    It’s a complicated balance. Let me first say that as a performer I don’t have trouble with #3. It’s my job to present whatever piece I’m playing in as beautiful and engaging a manner as I can. When I’m doing a recital, this means I don’t program pieces that I don’t think are ultimately going to be satisfying either to the audience or me, no matter how well I play them. When I’m playing in an ensemble (under someone else’s direction), my job changes to performing my best execution of what the director has asked for (balanced by my own interpretation of things the director has not mentioned). In this case, I don’t take responsibility for whether the interpretation or the piece are interesting, because I don’t have control.

    What makes me want to go to a concert as an audience member is my imagined expectation of the enjoyment I think I’ll feel. Mostly this depends more on repertoire than on performers, but even so it breaks down to percentages. One piece I don’t like on a program with two others I do? OK. Only one piece I do like on a program with lots of other stuff I don’t? No, thanks — or go and leave at intermission.

    I’m fully prepared to believe that people who don’t have international performing careers are more than capable of giving stellar performances — largely because I see it all the time in my colleagues (speaking both of my colleagues at my own school and of the larger community of teaching musicians, especially at the college level). So the fame of players or ensembles really means little to me; there are lots of people with impressive careers whose playing leaves me unmoved. So what I’m really after is the experience I think I’ll have at the concert, which lies at the intersection of repertoire and interpretation. The variables change with every different concert that comes along.

    • Miss Mussel

      I commend you on your ability to remain professional in all situations. I never purposely sabotaged anything (as horn player all sabotage is accidental) but like Frindley, I can’t deny reaching for the afterburners if I really loved the piece.

      You’re quite right that fame or even a full time performing career does not guarantee a great performance a paradox further complicated by the fact that there is no objective “great performance” in the sense that all the boxes can be ticked (phrasing, intonation, tempo etc) and I can still be left cold.

      It’s always a gamble. As a paying customer, I rely heavily on the program to shorten the odds.

  3. For me, programming rules. I´d only go for an uninteresting programme if the performers were truly superb. Other than that…

    Programme has a weight of about 70% in my “decision matrix”.

    • Miss Mussel

      Ah, decision matrix….I’m envisioning some sort of fancy decoder wheel that tells you which concerts to go to. On second thought..maybe a magic eight ball is the better option.

      If I’m honest, I’d rate the program at 80% for my decision matrix. If the answer is no, I check to see if there are any other factors that might influence me otherwise. If none appear then I stay home.

  4. frindley

    I’m going to be pedantic and draw a distinction between “repertoire” and “program”. A program is like the chosen meal for the concert, as selected from a menu (repertoire) of works. Repertoire represents the pieces you know as a performer or listener; programming is all about selecting pieces and placing them in a sequence for concert performance or broadcast.

    For example, an ensemble could present a very interesting program of repertoire that I’m “not keen on”. The strength of the good program as a program (the sequencing, the interrelationships between pieces, the concept if there is one, etc.) would probably override any lack of enthusiasm re individual pieces, especially if it were also an ensemble that I admired.

    So from an Audience perspective I’d say that I would definitely go hear a great ensemble play an interesting program even if I weren’t that keen on the pieces.

    The presence of great individual pieces that I liked might compensate for a poorly conceived or structured program, but there’d be some hesitation in my mind, especially if I’ve heard some of the pieces recently/elsewhere. (Along the lines of: I love chocolate, but I don’t want to eat it with baked beans, especially since I enjoyed some chocolate with Turkish delight yesterday.)

    An ensemble that I don’t admire has to be offering an amazingly interesting program to get me there. But if the individual pieces are ones that I especially adore then I’m more likely to stay away rather than be frustrated and annoyed by a weak or unimaginative performance, no matter how good the program.

    Considering concerts from a Critical/Professional viewpoint: Imaginative programming will frequently compensate for less-than-excellent playing or for a younger, less-experienced ensemble. Often a compelling idea, especially if it’s the performers’ own idea, can be very powerfully and excitingly communicated despite flawed performances.

    With recitalists and smaller ensembles who have more direct control over their programming, boring programming ideas tend to sit with boring performances (for all that these might be technically excellent).

    As far as concert experiences go, perfect, even thrilling, execution never really compensates for a boring program, but the good reviewer distinguishes between the two and praises and censures accordingly.

    When I was a Performer, especially in ensembles, my performances were less influenced by the program and more by the individual pieces. (After all, you only play and inhabit one piece at a time.) Whether the overall program was strong or not didn’t affect my playing much, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a really exciting piece that I enjoyed performing didn’t get that little “extra something” out of me, regardless of the professional attitude that Nicole mentions.

  5. Greta

    I’d hear the Wiener Philharmoniker play scales, you kidding me…? ;) It depends on where you live and what you have access to. I have to drive a 3 hr round trip to see a major symphony orchestra and I will say it is Program that #1 will lure me to make the drive every time. Occasionally Performer over Program if there is a truly great guest artist. When I had a subscription a few years ago, I did end up stuck with some concerts though where I wasn’t into the rep and suprisingly enjoyed them a lot solely due to excellent performance under good guest conductors.

    When traveling, I do try to catch what major orchestras I can no matter the rep. I have enjoyed these concerts most of all perhaps because going in I know I’m focusing more on the performance and it is a great opportunity to experience an old piece in a new way. Which brings me to this (connecting to the Performer side of things) – on the other hand, the most unfortunate concert experiences I’ve had as an Audience member and as a Performer are when an old classic piece just sounds old and tired and is performed as such. I know orchestra members get weary of Beethoven symphonies which can result in weary playing, but this is where a great conductor can come in and make a difference. The ones who interpret the piece in a fresh new way in rehearsal can make it seem new to you as a player, and to the audience. No matter the rep, you can easily see when players are inspired and connecting at a deep level with the conductor and those make for truly memorable concert experiences. When that happens Performance will trump Program for me and I will go see conductor/orchestra again and again.

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