Location, Location, Location: Choosing Site-Appropriate Repertoire

Tom Merrill • ChoralTravel/Festivals • August 11, 2017

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Several years ago, while still working as a travel planner, I was the on-site tour director for one of my client groups.

They were a choir giving a performance on an outdoor covered stage in a theme park. They had just completed their first selection and were beginning a performance of the beautiful “Ubi Caritas” by choral composer Ola Gjeilo…a rather quiet, subdued, serene work based on a Gregorian chant melody and found among the hymns of many Western Church denominations.

As the group was settling into the work, suddenly—loud squeals of delight and laughter. I turned to find a costumed character surrounded by little kids about 30 feet away. Then, equally out of the blue, BOOM. The climactic pyrotechnics of the concluding 10 AM stunt show, somewhere off to the left. And as a final coda to this distraction symphony….

Sniff, sniff….do I smell….churros? (Stomach rumbles)

In their defense, of course I don’t blame this on the theme park.

This is the nature of performing in such a location. It was a terrific stage area, full sound and lighting, a crew managing the performance— a perfect setting. For the right type of performance – which this wasn’t.

And it wasn’t that they were performing poorly either. It just wasn’t a good match of style and repertoire to the environment. Unfortunately, it’s challenging for the director and the kids to feel as good as they potentially could about what they’re accomplishing in performance when they’re not sure if they’re even being heard and appreciated over the surrounding fray.

When preparing your ensemble to “go on the road,” it’s important to know as much about your performance venue as possible in advance so that you can plan the right type of repertoire—and perhaps even determine the best type of ensemble for the space—in order to present your musicians at their best.

First, know the venue itself. Since you most likely won’t be able to visit in advance, ask lots of questions. Is it indoors or outdoors? Covered or not? How large is the stage or performance area? Is there any kind of sound reinforcement, whether via a speaker system or concert shells? Is it a high ceiling area with a lot of hard surfaces that will “echo” your sound around the room and create a very live situation? Is it a cramped, low ceiling area where a large or loud ensemble will be too overbearing for the listeners (and quite possibly detrimental to the hearing of the performers)?

Second, know the setting and your potential audience. Ultimately this may have the most influence on the performance style of your ensemble and your selection of repertoire. Are you performing for a seated, “committed” audience (beyond your chaperones) who are going to take time to really hear your efforts? Is the audience going to be passers-by influenced by the “distraction symphony” as described earlier? What’s going to work and actually be appreciated?

You also want your repertoire to enhance the setting rather than detract from it. What’s going to add a classy touch to the surroundings and not seem out of place? If you’re in a museum lobby surrounded by marble columns, are pep band and show choir tunes the best choice? Thinking conversely, a Gabrieli antiphonal work, Bach cantata, or Copland fanfare may play to the strengths of such a location and make it a memorable musical experience. Consider what fits the overall “theme” of the location.

What’s respectful of the site? You wouldn’t perform “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry in a cathedral sanctuary. It’s probably also not a good idea on the deck of a historic battleship or in front of a war memorial either…even though from a volume level it might work in the space, it’s equally important to take the context of the site into consideration. (Some sites have repertoire requirements for this very reason.)

This opens up a bigger and deeper philosophical conversation; do you base your spring programming around the tour, or your tour performances to match your curricular and musical goals? If you plan to perform the same music that you are preparing for your spring state assessments or as part of the standard repertoire to which you want to expose your musicians for educational and aesthetic reasons, perhaps your tour venue should reflect that choice and be a more formal concert setting—whether that be a competitive festival, an exchange concert at a local school auditorium, or a stand-alone performance at a cathedral site or concert hall. Consider where your ensemble will sound and be received best.

To be sure, there are multiple other factors that come into play. Often groups will assemble “tour ensembles” consisting of members of multiple ensembles in the program specifically for the purpose of the tour, and these groups may have very limited rehearsal time. Types of performance options at the destination, logistical concerns of equipment set up and transport, and costs need to be considered. Whatever the situation, it is important to consider the content of the performance program related to the venue so that your musicians can present themselves, their school, and their community in the best possible light.

Tom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.


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