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Repertoire Selection: Ideas and Suggestions

Updated: Apr 11

By Sanders Lau, choral conductor, Hong Kong



We conductors are blessed with the opportunity to navigate the design of concert programmes as a form of unique artistic expression. A thoughtful concert programme will not only aid in successfully displaying all the hard work we and our choir members have put into the preparation process but will also leave a more profound impact on our audience. When selecting a repertoire, a multitude of considerations must be made; often, it is a process of many trials and errors. Moreover, it does not necessarily become easier, even after accumulating considerable experience and expertise on the subject, as the repertoire available to us is also ever-expanding. This article aims to give readers some tried-and-true pointers, hopefully providing insights to those just starting out.


Balance

Regardless of how a concert programme is put together, I always try to strike a balance in two areas: 1) level of challenge and 2) key musical elements.

 

When I design a programme, I keep a ratio of roughly 1:2:1 for easy, moderate, and difficult pieces. The moderately challenging pieces comprise the majority of a programme and will take up about 40% of total rehearsal time. They should most effectively reflect the choir’s current artistic capacity. Although the difficult pieces take up a smaller portion of the programme, they should take up another 40% of your rehearsals, as you will need more time to polish them. These pieces should push the choir to reach their artistic and technical aspirations. The easier pieces should require the least rehearsal time, giving a good sense of accomplishment. All that being said, the first and most vital step is to accurately evaluate our singers’ capabilities in terms of music literacy, sight-reading ability, aural and ensemble skills, vocal competence, and so on, thus coming up with a realistic rehearsal plan.

 

I also balance my selections according to another parameter: their main musical interest. In reality, almost all music in the Western classical tradition is constructed around three fundamental elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. The task is identifying which element contributes the most to making each piece unique and exciting. For example, The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) has a spellbinding melody but relatively little rhythmic interest. Certainly, it also has some colourful harmonies, but I recommend categorising it as melody-driven. A rhythm-driven example would be Alleluiaby Jake Runestad (b. 1986), which is accomplished by quick and exhilarating figures and metre-changes. Paul Mealor’s (b. 1975) Locus iste is an excellent example of harmony-driven writing characterised by rich and extended harmonies. Remember, however, that it is normal for pieces to appear appealing in more than one of these three areas.


Coherence

We aim to design a cohesive repertoire to create a satisfying concert experience for our listeners. In other words, there is always some kind of a ‘theme’ that links all the works in a programme together. Therefore, it seems intuitive to start by deciding on a theme and then look for pieces that fit well. Another approach is to pick just one work as a central feature or anchor point, then extract a theme from it and build around that. These themes can be any of the following: emotions(e.g. joy, fear, hope, sorrow), nature (e.g. seasons, water, fire, stars, flowers), human experiences (e.g. love, death, war), conceptual (e.g. peace, time, darkness); or they can be more music-related, such as period, genre, language, literature, the origin of composition, and so on. And, of course, these can be combined to form more specific ideas, such as ‘19th century English part songs on love and hate’ or ‘works by contemporary Scandinavian composers about nature’.

 

You can find two examples of programmes I created in the link below. Example 1 ‘Faith, Hope, Love, Praise’ was designed for a youth choir. I decided on the themes (pretty straightforward, as the title suggests) and then picked a few pieces for each while keeping the balances I mentioned earlier. Example 2 ‘Under the Pale of Mist’ is more complex and was designed for a group of veteran singers. The anchor was There Are Some Men, a very short piece by Philip Glass (b. 1937). The text of this piece forms the inspirational backbone of the programme, which features pieces that were selected according to subject matters presented in the poem, such as mist, mourning song, lovers, time, and silence, creating a non-linear narrative that acts as reflections upon the poem in a cohesive aura. I have also included the programme notes for Example 2 for reference.


Repertoire Search

As it will take another dedicated article to thoroughly address this topic, I will only give a couple of quick tips. The first is what I call the ‘rabbit hole’ method. Start by simply picking a recording of a piece you enjoy, and then search for other recordings that are either by the same composer, choir, or conductor. Once you have encountered another recording of interest, rinse and repeat. Do this often, and soon, you will find yourself in possession of a network of repertoire based on your taste.

 

The second tip is to start keeping a repertoire database early in your career. Frequently update it with pieces you have already performed and those you have only just discovered. Categorise them according to difficulty, main musical interests, themes, and other information such as duration, instrumentation and voicing, language, period, etc.


Conclusion

I hope these ideas and tips will help you design the ‘right’ programme for your choirs. Last but certainly not least, we ought to find the ‘hook’ that makes us want to perform what we have put together. Maybe it is the message that the programme conveys, or we are just passionate about works from a specific period, or maybe there is just this one work we are dying to perform. Whatever it is, we must love it. Only then will we be able to convincingly share that love with our choir and, in turn, our audiences.

 

 

SANDERS LAU is one of Hong Kong’s most sought-after choral conductors. He is the Artistic Director and founder of NOĒMA, a leading chamber choir that comprises some of Hong Kong’s finest choral musicians. The choir has quickly established itself as one of the city’s choral landscape’s most dynamic and innovative forces. Sanders has also collaborated closely with Die Konzertisten as their Resident Conductor, preparing the choir to perform with a constellation of internationally acclaimed conductors such as Stephen Layton, Jonathan Cohen, John Butt, and Maxime Pascal, cultivating a specialised interest in the historically informed performances of early music. Sanders has been invited to guest-conduct, adjudicate, and give masterclasses and workshops for organisations such as the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Voices of Singapore Festival, Hong Kong Inter-School Choral Festival, and Hong Children’s Choir. Sanders won the First Prize and two Special Awards in the 3rd Romano Gandolfi International Competition for Choral Conductors in Italy in 2023.

 

Edited by Gillian Forlivesi Heywood, Italy/UK

 

 

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