Issues in planning concert programmes

This first post on my blog relates to issues in programming concerts, and is based on my experience in promoting over 1000 concerts in Ealing in the past decade ( ).   There are often tensions in planning concerts, between the repertoire that the musicians would like to play and that which the audience might enjoy.    My role is often to try to find an accommodation between the two. The Ealing concerts attract a general audience, largely comprising late middle-age and elderly people, who perhaps listen to Classic FM but don’t attend concerts in Central London, and generally have conservative musical tastes. We have to appeal to our clientele, and this may require a different approach to that of more prestigious venues in Central London, who can appeal to their own ‘niche’ audiences. We have undertaken questionnaire surveys which clearly show that attendance at concerts is dependent on two variables which I can’t alter (viz. clashes with other events, and the state of the weather) and the third crucial variable, namely whether the programme is deemed to be attractive or not. As a rule of thumb, anything from Haydn and Mozart through to Brahms and Dvorak will attract an audience and anything before or after this period will put them off ! The inclusion of works by Bartok or Prokofiev, for example, has an obvious negative impact on audience numbers, and performing to a half-full church is rather dispiriting for the musicians as well as for myself, and results in less money to distribute to the musicians from our retiring collection.

The problem for all classical music promoters is that of audience retention – persuading them to come again to another concert. In practice, this means that each concert has to be perceived as sufficiently enjoyable to encourage the potential audience member to come along, even if this means coping with heavy traffic on a cold, dark, wet night in the winter, rather than staying at home by the fire, watching the television. It is a tough challenge !  Viewed from this perspective, I certainly don’t see it as my role to ‘educate’ the audience or help them develop a sudden fondness for composers whom they have not understood or have actively disliked for 50 years or so.   Many potential audience members find much 20th century music difficult to understand and enjoy.   If they are bored for two concerts in succession, they are unlikely to return. In fact, I share many of their problems, finding at least some of the music of, say, Bartok, Medtner, Scriabin or Prokofiev to be difficult to comprehend and not particularly enjoyable to listen to. If I have problems, after a lifetime’s participation in music, I am sure that they are also shared by most of the audience.

Yet we have an important secondary role to fulfil, in providing performing experience to exceptional musicians, and to help develop their career. We don’t operate solely to give pleasure to the audience. Our musicians may need to try out more ‘difficult’ repertoire before a high-profile concert or competition, even though more popular repertoire would ensure a larger audience. So a compromise needs to be reached, often involving some delicate negotiation.   Pianists, particularly the many superb pianists based in London who hail from the former Soviet Union, often wish to play works by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Medtner etc, and violinists are especially fond of the Ysaye solo sonatas, which are not particularly grateful listening. Unless the musicians can ‘sugar the pill’ by including popular works by earlier composers, they risk playing to an empty church. One important aid to help the audience in ‘difficult repertoire’, borrowed from the BBC Proms programmes, is to indicate in the programme how long each work lasts.   Then if someone becomes bored in an unfamiliar work, he or she can ascertain whether the piece lasts 8 minutes or 38 minutes !   A good introduction by the musicians, particularly of 20th century music can be immensely helpful in guiding the audience through an unfamiliar work, and we are increasingly encouraging our performers to provide this.

So I lean heavily and unashamedly towards popular and established repertoire, with carefully rationed performance of unfamiliar music, in the hope that the total enjoyment of the entire concert experience (including the social content before and after the concert) will be sufficient to attract our supporters back again and again, and thus we will have a full and enthusiastic audience for our musicians. This means that some standard chamber works are performed on average almost on a yearly basis, as detailed in the tables of works at St Mary’s Perivale performed over the past decade ( , in over 500 concerts. Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, for example, has been played 10 times in the past decade at St Mary’s Perivale. Some have called this ‘over-familiarization’, but I maintain that hearing this sublime masterpiece on average once a year, played ‘live’ by different ensembles, is hardly excessive.   Some of my audience do think that I should be ‘more adventurous’ with repertoire choices, which sounds admirable in theory, but after 1000 concerts I know that these same people will stay away if unfamiliar repertoire is on the menu !   It is a difficult compromise to achieve. I think it is approximately right at the moment, but you may think otherwise. Have a look through our archives pages for St Mary’s Perivale over the past year or two ( , and see if you agree !

Hugh Mather






Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

3 thoughts on “Issues in planning concert programmes”

  1. Dear Hugh,
    I enjoyed reading your article/post .Some very interesting points and perspective on music versus audience being made. I myself (as probably all musicians do) came across this constant struggle of recitals’ programmes as a soloist and especially with the Canorum Trio I am a part of(, where due to unusual combination of clarinet,viola and piano, and ‘unfamiliar’ repertoire due to such combination of instruments, resulted in societies’ reservations to book us. I got countless e-mails of ‘your trio is great and we like it a lot’ but are worried that such combination and repertoire won’t sell tickets…Ironically after the concerts that we did manage to book audiences were commenting on how nice and refreshing it is to hear such beautiful combination and how exciting to hear something different from the usual piano trio or yet another string quartet. It is really hard for concert promoters and musicians to attract the audience at present…

    P.S. I already had e-mail correspondence with you earlier this academic year.

    I have just joined twitter as @jelena_makarova

    Kind Regards

    1. Dear Jelena
      Thanks for your note. May I apologize for not replying before – this blog is very new, and I am only gradually getting the hang of it. You describe very accurately the problems facing concert organizers. Often an unusual combination will work out very well indeed, in practice, to the audience who actually attend, but it may well deter others who will think (wrongly) that it will be an unappealing evening. The problem is attracting the audience in the first place. One way round it is to have concerts with two different halves, so that the mix of say a piano solo in the first half, and then your trio in the second, will make a nice evening. This model works very well at St Mary’s Perivale. But your point is very well taken. Re your trio, I think you should offer to start every concert with Mozart K498 (Kegelstatt) trio, which always goes down very well, and the mere mention of Mozart will make up for your unusual combination ! Thanks very much for your reply.

  2. Hugh’s comments are very illuminating. We run just two chamber concerts a year in the lovely small Georgian church at Langton by Spilsby in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Nothing at all compared to the tremendous offering in Ealing. But then the population of the whole of Lincolnshire – England’s second largest county – is less than 1 million. So the programmes choice have to be spot on to continue to attract audiences. Total audience numbers in seven years have been something over 1,100, but it is still very important to keep up the standard to ensure as near a full church (max capacity 130) each time if possible. So, the problems are the same as in Ealing (though on a much less grand scale) and each concert must be seen as excellent to ensure that we get repeat audiences. And we must always bear in mind that we cannot fit a piano into the church, which limits the combinations to which we can offer a platform. We too have tried the questionnaire – though we did not ask “What do you NOT like about the concerts.” We will try this next time.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *