Occasional problems in fixing concerts

This post concerns the various problems which I have encountered in fixing over a 1000 concerts over the past decade, in the hope that they may be of interest to other concert organizers, and perhaps to musicians, in helping them understand the situation from a concert organizer’s viewpoint.  A detailed archive of these concerts is available on www.hughmather.uk  .

Fixing concert dates : This is usually the easy part, because most of our musicians are very keen to play at my venues.   They have usually played here before, know the set-up, and are happy to return.   A few have developing careers and can command larger fees elsewhere, and may gracefully decline – which is absolutely fine.   Most still return to try out repertoire before big ‘dates’ in Central London etc.  I also receive requests from several hundred other musicians for concerts each year, and I have write back to most to say that I simply can’t accommodate them.    I always send a personalised letter to them, expressing my sincere apologies and best wishes, and it is usually well-received, although occasionally embittered respondents will bombard me with sour follow-up emails.

Obtaining the programme :   When a concert date is finalized, I then ask what the musician(s) will be playing, and (if appropriate) who their accompanist or duo partner will be.   Then the problems start !  Sometimes it takes three (or more) nagging emails to elicit this information, with the initial ones ignored, or given ‘stalling’ answers.   It seems strange that some musicians agonize for months over what to play, after being very keen for the concert date in the first place.

Obtaining a biog : Most musicians have a website, from which a biog can be readily obtained.  Otherwise a biog is requested by email.    All biogs are stored on one very large Word file and can be re-cycled at future concerts, but may need to be updated. These are invariably too long, and need to be drastically reduced and tightened, with all the usual superfluous prose eliminated !   Biogs will be the subject of future post.

Changing the programme : This happens far too frequently – in fact it has occurred in 4 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale within the past month.   Occasionally this is because of a forthcoming competition, and the need to consolidate ‘old’ repertoire again.  Another common scenario arises when a pianist playing with another instrumentalist has to cancel, and the replacement pianist hasn’t time to master the original programme.   However, the usual explanation is that the musicians haven’t mastered their proposed programme in time, and are falling back on old, familiar repertoire.     This is perhaps understandable, but it is irritating and unprofessional to be informed of this a week or less before the concert, when it has been widely advertised, and it is difficult to print the programme again.  In practice, the change of programme often results in an improved standard of performance of more familiar repertoire, but it is still to be avoided.

Cancellations : Some cancellations are inevitable. They fall into distinct patterns.  Firstly, musicians may cancel 2-6 months before because they have been offered another more prestigious concert, or perhaps an orchestral tour.  Musicians are always informed that this is perfectly acceptable, provide plenty of notice is given.  It is clearly understood that they need to look after their careers and their income.   There are many other musicians who can fill any gaps, and I am always delighted when the careers of our most successful musicians ‘take off’, with a profusion of concerts elsewhere.

Secondly,  there is sometimes a problem with ensembles booking concerts 6-9 months ahead, and then disbanding or re-grouping.   This happens remarkably frequently, and it seems that the ‘life expectancy’ of piano trios and string quartets (in particular) is remarkably short, at least when playing with the same personnel.   Many of the myriad of ensembles who have performed at St Mary’s Perivale or St Barnabas, listed on http://www.hughmather.uk/musicians.htm  no longer exist.  This can be due to the members of an ensemble falling out with each other, or perhaps a relationship between two of the players breaking down, or one member obtaining an orchestral post away from London, or a post-graduate scholarship to study in Europe.  Sometimes ensembles are named after one particular member, and then have to change their name when that person leaves. These changes are to be expected with groups of musicians aged in their twenties and early thirties, and might perhaps form the basis of a ‘soap opera’, reminiscent of Amazon Prime’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ but set in London rather than New York !   Again, I never mind provided sufficient notice is given.

Thirdly, we have occasionally had problems with musicians pulling out of concerts shortly before the date.  This is obviously very stressful, since it is impossible to prevent an audience arriving for a concert.   I have only been let down on the actual day on two occasions (out of over 1000 concerts) and on both have given an impromptu piano recital.   Cancellations in the days leading up to a concert may happen, particularly with singers. I usually get an email about 3-4 days before the concert, saying that they ‘think they might be developing a cold’ and think it ‘safer’ to cancel.   I have started to ask them whether, if instead of St Mary’s Perivale, it was their big debut performance at the Royal Opera House, would they still be cancelling ?   I do think that some singers cancel too readily.  It would be interesting to know how often this happens at song recitals and opera performances elsewhere.

I should emphasize that all the above problems are the exception rather than the rule, and most concerts are organized without any problems, and most musicians are entirely reliable, helpful and charming.    Problems only arise because a small minority are rather disorganized, rather than intentionally difficult. It would be interesting to see whether any of the above remarks ‘ring true’ with other concert organizers.


Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

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

2 thoughts on “Occasional problems in fixing concerts”

  1. I think you do a wonderful ‘job’ and enjoy all your choices of concerts- material and artists. It must be mega difficult to get everything working well and I think you do it brilliantly. ‘Variety is the spice of life’ and some education/explaination helps a lot on some of the more difficult or obscure composers.

    A few ‘slips’ are unimportant to the quality of the concerts. Dealing with so many threads is not easy.
    Thank you for all your hard work and dedication.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with Carol`s comment, and in offering thanks and congratulations to you, Hugh!
      It has been fascinating (and salutary) to read about some of the many difficulties and conflicting constraints under which you work……and your generously-shared experience.

      I also agree about the wisdom of “sugaring the pill” in the case of more adventurous mixed programmes – also about the value of explanation and (audible) introduction. I believe it is well worth including at least some more challenging material, and the calibre and charm of some of your lovely young musicians makes them ideal ambassadors to win over the most recalcitrant audience members …I hope!

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