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Organ recitals: audience preferences


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Some recent posts have discussed things like youtube performances and various pieces of organ music.  This has reminded me of a related topic I ponder about from time to time, which is how to construct a recital programme.  There seem to be several aspects|:

1.  Who are we playing to?  Sometimes it might be an audience 'of the cloth' so to speak, in other words made up largely of organists.  Such occasions will include recitals given to organists' associations.  Compiling a recital programme for this sort of audience is probably not seen as particularly difficult by most players.  But at the other pole, if we want to attract an audience from a wider and more catholic musical background, or those who are merely curious, which pieces should be selected?  Perhaps another way to pose the question is to ask what organ tracks would you choose if you were hosting a Classic FM radio programme, where the advertisers have a keen interest in maximising the listening figures?  Should we attempt to educate audiences by instilling into them our own (possibly arcane) preferences, or include a selection of lollipops perhaps?  Should the programme be all lollipops?  These questions seem important, because they are related to the very survival of the instrument at one extreme.  And getting people through the door is also advantageous to the church, town hall, or whatever because it enhances the weight of the collection plate which helps to pay for the upkeep of the instrument and the purchase of the next one.

2.  How do we know what people's preferences are in the first place?  Has the audience research for organ music ever been done?  If so, are the results available in the public domain?

As it happens, I do have answers to such questions.  Whether they are the right ones might be debated, but on the other hand, who could say whether they were 'right' or not?  And if they were thought to be wrong, where are the alternative answers to be found?  For what it's worth, I analysed the download statistics relating to the organ music tracks on my website over a six month period during which many thousands of people across the globe listened to (or at least downloaded) them.  I could even give you the IP address of each individual download in theory,  from which possibly interesting geographical and even demographic information could be extracted if desired.  Several hours' worth of music is available on the site, played on various types of organ ranging from Arp Schnitger to WurliTzer and representing music from the 15th to the 20th centuries.  From these stats, I compiled a Top Twenty list which had some interesting properties, including:

1.  J S Bach did not appear, even though the number of items by him on the site is five times larger than the next most common composer.  (This does not mean that nobody listened to Bach; merely that the number of those who did were not able to propel him into the Top Twenty).

2.  People strongly preferred romantic music played on organs from the romantic era (19th & 20th centuries) rather than earlier music played on baroque instruments, no matter how interesting people such as us on this forum might regard it.

Somehow I feel that this information has to be at least slightly useful.  Firms and broadcasting organisations spend huge sums on similar market research, and precisely for this reason they are not about to throw their hard-earned data into the public domain for their competitors to see.  But I think the bottom line is that recitalists might consider paying attention to results such as these, even if they do not reflect them in their programmes in every particular.  Nobody likes playing to an empty church - do they?

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A valuable exercise indeed. There’s probably a case for saying it might be too late but there are some points where the marketing and planning of recitals falls way short of similar events in, say, local music societies.

One of my biggest gripes is the abject failure to publish the programme of music in advance and this is pretty widespread. I simply won’t go to any recital if I don’t know beforehand what is to be performed. There’s really no excuse for it and it strikes me as lazy and even amateur. You wouldn’t be expected to turn up at the Wigmore Hall not knowing the programme so why is it that this happens at organ recitals? Organ recitals.com has the facility to append programmes, easily. Leeds TH, for instance, publish their full programme at the start of the season.

I attended one recital in which a respected organist programmed the entire Elgar Vesper voluntaries, a guaranteed turn off. These are of such insignificance as to be rightly forgotten, the sort of bland doodlings to be found in those Victorian Vademecums, serviceable music to fill a gap but nothing more.
 

My other bugbear is the outdated ‘every organ recital should include Bach’ statement. Colin’s analysis appears to quash that. Why Bach? Why not Buxtehude for instance? 

And, biggest turn off (for me) - transcriptions (or, more accurately, arrangements). It’s almost admitting that there’s no decent organ music and I’m inclined to agree at times with that. Decent organ music is there, it’s mostly written by organist composers (much like guitar repertoire) and can I think capture the imagination of the audience. This ‘transcriptions’ lark reaches its absolute nadir in a certain organists fixation with Mahler symphonies, an utterly pointless exercise, futile.

Maybe some of my comments are abrasive, possibly prejudiced, but the organ recital business is a victim of its own narrow mindedness. There are exceptions of course but joe public isn’t going to be persuaded by a lack of publicity/programme, obscure repertoire, attempts at popularity (arrangements of lollipops from other genres) and a feeling that there is some sort of special alchemy involved - there isn’t.

 

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The ‘playing to an empty church’ issue is not going to go away, I fear, without some very significant effort, or without without some difficult discussions.

I’ve always been passionate about the organ and its music (well, some of its music), so I’ve given the issue plenty of thought over the years.  As far as I can see, there are a number of obstacles to overcome:

  1. Repertoire.  How much of the music that we hold dear is a) any good and b) likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners?  My list of such works grows smaller all the time.  For example, the symphonies of Widor and Vierne are often held up as the pinnacle of French Romantic organ music, but many discussions (including some on this board) come to the conclusion that most of them are good in patches, but not consistently well-written throughout.  Personally, I feel that Duruflé’s music mostly fits both criteria, but I struggle to think of a single Dupré piece that would qualify - Cortège et Litanie, perhaps?  The worth of Bach’s works is generally acknowledged, but perhaps some of Buxtehude’s music is a little more appealing?  Maybe a good measure of quality is whether or not a composer’s non-organ pieces have become part of the ‘canon’ - Bach, certainly; Buxtehude, to a certain extent; Duruflé, yes, insofar that there isn’t very much of it; Widor, no; Dupré, no...  When we have easy access to so much beautiful, well-written, inspired music in so many genres, it isn’t hard to see why the cognoscenti aren’t necessarily keen on organ music.  It might be interesting, on another thread, to list repertoire that might help our cause, especially not-particularly-well-known works (Kromolicki Variations?), and pieces that generally aren’t well-received beyond the organ loft (Reubke Sonata...)
  2. Instruments:  Whenever I ask non-organist musicians what it is about the organ that they don’t like, a common reply is that it ‘always sounds the same’.  Lacking the expressiveness of other instruments, or the variety of colour of an ensemble (which, in some ways, it attempts to emulate), the organ seems somewhat deficient.  At least, perhaps we can recognise that a two-manual, parish church instrument isn’t going to be sufficiently ‘colourful’ to sustain a concert programme.  Why should it be, since that isn’t its primary purpose?  Concert instruments designed for concert halls are often large, with a variety of sounds, and perhaps these instruments are more ideal for enthusing non-organists about organ music.
  3. Performers.  Guy Bovet said, in a radio interview, that the organ is the instrument that you can most regularly hear badly played.  I’ve lost count of the number of recital series that I’ve attended, often comprised of ‘local organists’, where the performances have really left a lot to be desired.  I would never criticise the enthusiasm of many players and churches for their attempts to keep the organ in the public eye, or for using such concerts as a means of raising much-needed financial assistance, but I fear that less-than-inspired music given a less-than-competent performance isn’t going to win any advocates.  There is a balance to be had, I’m sure, but I’m not sure that we, as a community of concert promoters and organists, have attained it just yet.

Solutions?  In any discussion of these issues, the conclusion is that ‘there isn’t enough money’.  It’s a sometimes circular argument - there isn’t enough money, so we must do the best we can, even though that ‘best’ might, in some cases, prevent any income-generation.  However, it can’t be denied, especially in current circumstances, that advocacy of our beloved instrument would be far easier with more cash.  Until such time as that might be achieved, I feel that we can do our bit by showing our enthusiasm for the very best of the organ repertoire, and not just for the instrument (how many music lovers genuinely care what wind pressure a tuba is on?), and by encouraging people to hear really first-class performers, either in person or on recordings.
 

I’m always grateful to read what others think on this subject - whether or not their opinions align with my own.  Hopefully, we can share ideas about how to successfully increase our audiences.

All the best,

B

 

 

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9 minutes ago, Brizzle said:

‘Performers.  Guy Bovet said, in a radio interview, that the organ is the instrument that you can most regularly hear badly played.‘

(I seem to have parsed my reply in the quotation field, forgive that bit of IT uselessness). 

I’d agree entirely. It is, essentially, an amateur profession in its wider context. If we take Brass Bands, for instance, the contest circuit sets levels of competency and musicianship which guarantee a progression. There is a bar set there and players are eager to try to up their game (although, having played in many contests the whole thing can become a trial). It keeps players in their toes, sharpens up their general reading and interpretation, all of which is beneficial. It’s also an example of music-making for amateurs which can produce superb musicians. 

in Germany there are the levels attained for different standards. What do we have? A phantom College administrating diplomas which try to cover everything and largely fail. Is it really necessary to have the paperwork sections including exercises and questions which I’d suggest are of little practical use (Organology, whatever that is supposed to be). 
 

I’d entirely concur that there are some duds amongst some of the most highly regarded repertoire, Widor is a good example, do entire symphonies have to be programmed? Is there a tendency to include composers such as Liszt, Elgar, Mendelssohn simply because it’s thought they might have more kudos on the programme? This then, as a consequence, succeeds in implying that real organist/composers are not up to the mark (although in my opinion, the Mendelssohn Sonatas are trite, nowhere near the standard that FM showed in the Octet, Symphonies, Chamber works).

I groan when the Britten Prelude and Fugue appear, it’s a dreadful piece, again nowhere near his other achievements. But it appears because it’s by Britten, not because it has any intrinsic merit. 
 

It’s also clear that many local association programmes are limited by the ability of their performers and they frequently revert to the odd easy Toccata, dreary Rheinberger ditties, Whitlock (the easy ones). If it’s a public recital then the public demand a far higher standard and are frequently let down.

Theres no easy solution here, the situation has been largely left to fester and decay and I’d agree entirely that the general public are passed over.

 

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The German system is interesting, and has historically been successful, but isn’t problem-free: both the A Diploma and the B Diploma in Church Music require full-time study at university level, and, in the UK, it probably wouldn’t make sense to have a degree in such a specialised area without a realistic expectation of gaining well-remunerated employment afterwards - cathedral posts are few and far between, and the appalling ‘RSCM rates’ have been an excuse for parish churches to keep salaries unrealistically low for quite a while.  I understand that even in Germany there are at least two major issues - firstly, that there are so many completing the diplomas that the market is flooded, and A diploma graduates are having to apply for B standard posts for the sake of gaining some kind of relevant employment; secondly, some churches, strapped for cash, have done their utmost to make sure that they only need employ B diploma graduates for the sake of saving money.  Perhaps one of our German colleagues might be able to confirm or deny this.

The RAM had an excellent Church Music diploma for a while, but this has morphed into the (equally excellent) Choral Conducting degree.  I’m told, though, that students of that course (and indeed the organ department) aren’t generally interested in cathedral or church work these days. 

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of churches who really could use well-qualified musicians, but, as is always the main problem, there aren’t sufficient funds to appropriately remunerate them.

The brass band world certainly is an example of how competitive playing inspires musicians to keep their skills in good condition, and this might have some application in the organ world, but organ competitions tend to focus on ‘young’ players, in a slightly unhealthy way, I think.  The really excellent players around at the moment - I’m thinking of the likes of Stephen Farr, Daniel Moult, Nigel Allcoat, Kevin Bowyer - aren’t fresh-faced youths, straight out of college, but have years of experience of performing and interpreting repertoire, which makes their concerts far more compelling.

As you say, there really is no easy solution, and the more I think about it, the more bleak it seems. 

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35 minutes ago, Brizzle said:

Stephen Farr, Daniel Moult, Nigel Allcoat, Kevin Bowyer

I don’t think I could have come up with a better selection of organists who are really worth hearing. Correct me if I’m wrong but at least three of them have no other church duties which suggests that the more successful organists seem to be the ones who can solely concentrate on that aspect.

Thanks for clearing up some of the mysteries of the German system, I had a vague recollection of the ABC designations and, like the entire tertiary music education system are we turning out too many highly qualified and competent musicians - there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near enough employment for them.

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22 hours ago, Phoneuma said:

A valuable exercise indeed. There’s probably a case for saying it might be too late but there are some points where the marketing and planning of recitals falls way short of similar events in, say, local music societies.

One of my biggest gripes is the abject failure to publish the programme of music in advance and this is pretty widespread. I simply won’t go to any recital if I don’t know beforehand what is to be performed. There’s really no excuse for it and it strikes me as lazy and even amateur. You wouldn’t be expected to turn up at the Wigmore Hall not knowing the programme so why is it that this happens at organ recitals? Organ recitals.com has the facility to append programmes, easily. Leeds TH, for instance, publish their full programme at the start of the season.

I attended one recital in which a respected organist programmed the entire Elgar Vesper voluntaries, a guaranteed turn off. These are of such insignificance as to be rightly forgotten, the sort of bland doodlings to be found in those Victorian Vademecums, serviceable music to fill a gap but nothing more.
 

My other bugbear is the outdated ‘every organ recital should include Bach’ statement. Colin’s analysis appears to quash that. Why Bach? Why not Buxtehude for instance? 

And, biggest turn off (for me) - transcriptions (or, more accurately, arrangements). It’s almost admitting that there’s no decent organ music and I’m inclined to agree at times with that. Decent organ music is there, it’s mostly written by organist composers (much like guitar repertoire) and can I think capture the imagination of the audience. This ‘transcriptions’ lark reaches its absolute nadir in a certain organists fixation with Mahler symphonies, an utterly pointless exercise, futile.

Maybe some of my comments are abrasive, possibly prejudiced, but the organ recital business is a victim of its own narrow mindedness. There are exceptions of course but joe public isn’t going to be persuaded by a lack of publicity/programme, obscure repertoire, attempts at popularity (arrangements of lollipops from other genres) and a feeling that there is some sort of special alchemy involved - there isn’t.

 

As a "non player", I have been to 100's of recitals all over from 1977 until 2019, and for me there is nothing worse than travelling  many miles, paying an entrance fee and finally getting a programme with music  by some composers I have never heard of. Transcriptions... I can take them or leave them, realising that at certain Town Hall venues, they are expected, but I get the Mahler thing (I recorded one in York Minster with permission of the  recitalist and RS).
 I organised my  own recital a few months ago, with an eminent player, good church, quality programme etc, and more advertising  than you could shake a stick at, incl radio..... played to an empty church bar 4 of us

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It's odd isn't it, the empty church syndrome, considering the number of people who nevertheless seem to have an interest in organ music as per my original post.  There were 7530 downloads of my so-called Top 20 titles alone, which was just a small fraction of the total in the stats I analysed.  And that's just for my humble minority-interest site buried within the detritus of the billions out there.  But of course it's much more of a commitment to actually go to a venue and pay to hear the music.  So why does live pop music attract such crowds?  One reason might be that it costs money however you do it (if you stream it legally), so the lazy internet option isn't so financially attractive as it is for the out-of-copyright material which comprises the bulk of most organ recitals.  And bedroom downloaders get none of the herd attractions of actually being at Glasto etc.

There are instruments for which the situation is even more dire than it is for the organ.  The bassoon is one example.  What sort of career, if any, is on offer for a young aspirant bassoonist?  Or a violist?  So maybe the situation isn't quite as negative as we might think.  A degree of latent interest seems to be there if my stats have any meaning, which is some small comfort perhaps.  But it's nonetheless going to be an uphill struggle to get people to go to recitals when they can hear the same stuff for free on the internet or Alexa, etc.  Come to think of it, maybe it's people like me who put stuff for free on the web who are actually making things worse for live music events.

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‘So whydoes live pop music attract such crowds? ‘ - (tongue in cheek here) - because it’s popular?!

I’d also suggest that the prospects for bassoonists and violists are possibly better. By pure chance I had a very interesting conversation with a professional horn player who has had to be laid off recently. In a general discussion about the sorry state everything is in now he was very much of the opinion that there are far too many trumpeters, clarinettists, flautists around for the amount of work. Pre-lockdown and as a horn player he found little difficulty in staying on the podium. 

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4 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

So why does live pop music attract such crowds?

Having a couple of offspring who are avid festival-goers, I am fairly certain that the added-value is in the party atmosphere, the communal dancing and the sense of tribeship, the last being a bonding factor in some other pursuits, such as birding.  I have not noticed this degree of cameraderie amongst classical musicians. Cliquiness, yes (and certainly amongst organists); broader cameraderie, no. How often after a concert/recital will an audience member approach a complete stranger and start chatting about what they have heard and seen?

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An interesting comment from Vox Humana and maybe as a player of organ concerts and attendee at pop festivals I can certainly identify with some of what he describes. Maybe not communal dancing and tribalism in my case but there is a difference where the music is part of a total experience. One also experiences this at the proms and similar events and I can’t help thinking that a problem with organ music stems from some organists. Events such as the International Organ Festival at St Albans draw crowds as do the IAO festivals etc. but many organists do exhibit certain ‘head in the sand’ tendencies and yes cliquiness regarding repertoire and programming. Having taught music to 11 - 18 year olds for 40 years I can attest to the fact that young minds at least are receptive to all genres of music but effort needs to be made to introduce etc. The same can be said about church music...but that is another story.

A

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How should a recitalist make an emotional connection with their audience? How can you create a sense of joy?

A computer can play a piece perfectly via midi but I wouldn't want to go to a recital given by a computer. Likewise I haven't enjoyed some recitals that were note perfect (to my ears) given by an organist hidden away in an organ loft.

One of the challenges for many organs is that the audience don't get to see the performer. Video relay can help but how many venues have a good enough projector to show a sharp bright image on a good sized screen with multiple cameras so you can see the hands and feet, but just as importantly the face of the recitalist?

For me a good programme should blend familiar with the less well known and unknown and play to the strength of the instrument. A performer who lends their own interpretation to a well known work will help keep it interesting. (I think Olivier Latry's Bach To The Future album is brilliant).

Finally it is a sad fact that nowadays many people have a shorter attention span than on years gone by. Couple that with the often uncomfortable seating found in churches could mean that some of the longer pieces of repertoire will have audiences shuffling in their seats.

Some people say a recital should always contain some Bach, others don't like transcriptions. For me a good recital doesn't have to contain anything other than something that can make me sit up and say 'wow!'.

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8 hours ago, Choir Man said:

How should a recitalist make an emotional connection with their audience? How can you create a sense of joy?  ... For me a good recital doesn't have to contain anything other than something that can make me sit up and say 'wow!'.

This is the nub of the issue, I think. If you are giving a recital, your job is to give as many of the audience as possible an enjoyable and memorable experience. That’s it, really. Granted, it can mean different things in different places depending on who the audience is. If you are playing specifically for organists in, say, London, or for some other audience guaranteed to be musically sophisticated, you could possibly get away with a more niche and recherché programme than if you are playing to a non-specific audience in a humble country parish church.

I made it a rule early on never to listen to what other organists said. You can never please them anyway. There’s always at least one who will tell you how he would have played something differently. The people who matter are the general public: they are the ones to whom an organist has to appeal if the instrument is to be popularised. There is a reason why Carlo Curley was so popular. In a nutshell, he made sure that everyone went home thoroughly entertained. His approach was unashamedly popular. Not all of us would wish to be quite so low-brow in our approach and nor do I think that his was the only possible approach. However, whatever music we programme does need to deliver audience appeal. As Choir Man intimated, the programme doesn’t ‘have’ to contain Bach, or anything else in particular; it just has to be enjoyable.

I once attended a recital on our local foghorn in which a well-known organist played a programme entirely of French Romantic music, nearly all of which involved full organ, on an instrument whose oily-smooth tones are about as remote from a Cavaillé-Coll as it is possible to get. Now I know that I suggested above that one shouldn’t take any notice of what organists say, but, when they are all complaining about having had their brains blasted out almost non-stop for an hour, you have to think that maybe they had a point.  ‘A wall of white noise’ was how one FRCO described it. He was right: nothing is audible through that Tromba chorus. Except the Tuba. If the organists found it hard to take, what did everyone else think? It was a pity because the recital had been technically flawless.

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