About eight or nine years ago I visited the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and was shown around their offices in the handsome blue “Apollo” konserthuset (where they award the Nobel prizes). On one wall was a large display case with program sheets, most of them – as best I recall – dating from the very late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
What struck me about these programs was how many of them began with the symphony then, after interval, continued with a concerto or similar and ended with a shorter orchestral piece, in most cases something fairly upbeat (various representatives of the “overture” genre).
This is a complete inversion of the standard program that forms the bread and butter of most orchestral seasons now. We’re used to the overture – concerto – interval – symphony formula and, with a few exceptions, that’s mostly what we get. So it was interesting to see such a different conception of programming from not all that long ago.
Last week was, I thought, an instance where a program might have benefited from being turned on its head. As great and poetic as it is, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony doesn’t really end in a way that lifts you onto your feet with enthusiasm; Berlioz’s Roman Carnival should. How I would have loved to have heard this program with the Beethoven first and the Berlioz last. (The greatest violin concerto of all would remain in the middle.)
There might be disadvantages to this way of organising things: any late-comers will miss at least one movement of what is likely to be the meatiest work on the program and perhaps the piece they came for; and orchestras have to launch into the performance without the overture-as-preparation that they’ve become accustomed to.
But I believe the advantages could outweigh all these objections and perhaps those Swedish programmers of the past knew what they were about. First, you get to hear (or play) the longest and probably most demanding work while you’re fresh, not at the end of a long concert at the end of a long day. Second, as with a meal, you begin with a main course and conclude with the musical equivalent of dessert, leaving the hall energised and with a refreshed palate. At the same time, the placement of the interval means that there’s no need to worry about the challenges of “following” the symphony or major work with anything else – it still stands alone, framed by non-music, as it would in a second half.
I’d like to see more orchestras try this kind of thing more often. And perhaps I will.