La Folie recently did one concert in north-east London, followed by another just under a fortnight later in Chichester. The group pragmatically took advantage of the geographical separation (and therefore small chance of overlap in prospective audience) and chronological proximity to play almost the same programme twice, with very similar personnel (an oboe concerto was added for the second concert, along with its soloist, removing a violin sonata and one of a group of harpsichord solos; we changed over cello and double bass but no other players). The result (though there were other factors in this too) was a second concert that ranked high among that group’s performances, practically and musically, with ever-better intuition between players and tightness of accuracy.
Repeating programmes, or even works, in any close succession (excluding seasonal and pops concerts) is still rare enough in the classical world to be worthy of comment. This in contrast to many gigging bands that may have a performance-ready repertoire not much bigger than their longest set list. Classical critics in particular rarely stop asking why, and it’s a worthwhile point.
Partly, most orchestras are fairly static most of the year – they perhaps play at a home venue except for a summer tour, where they may well repeat much more material. If you’re essentially drawing from the same area’s audience, then arguably you have to have enough audience to fill your venue twice to bother playing the same programme twice. Most groups that repeat similar set lists (particularly originals acts) are a lot more mobile, so are effectively always as if on tour. Indeed, many originals promoters forbid playing in the same area within a fortnight or even a month of their booking, to avoid audiences seeing essentially the same show somewhere else.
But people do come back to see rock bands and others do very similar shows multiple times, maybe not within weeks but certainly within months, a few times a year – more often than most orchestras repeat the same concerto or symphony. Perhaps because, at grassroots level, non-classical music is usually a lot cheaper and so the investment is less. Perhaps because you can generally drink, dance and socialise more prolifically at a gig than a concert or recital and so your night can be good even with somewhat predictable music so long as you like it. Perhaps just because most people are less attentively picky about their rock, singer-songwriter or even jazz than their symphony orchestra repertoire.
But it is a shame that, at the middle range of performance where concerts are fairly frequent and rehearsals in effect paid, this means a lot of minimally prepared music. Sure, no problem for amateur orchestras who rehearse weekly for eight weeks or so for each concert – once you’ve spent that long with a piece you ought to be allowed five years off from it, and there will probably be several players still around in five years, or ten, who would rather do something new. But the number of concerts I have played on one rehearsal is staggering, and I can’t help but feel that a more creative approach, mixing and matching new and previously performed repertoire, might give on average a more thoroughly musical experience to the audience. Would it be worth travelling more (fairly short distances, but further than audiences are likely to venture) in order to play similar programmes to different listeners? Admittedly travel expenses for even a small orchestra are enough to give second thoughts. And we seem to live in a conservative world for the arts, where it is sadly less likely that people will turn out for a visiting group in order to hear something different, than it is that they will stay away because the new bunch are an unknown quantity. And all this only works if what is billed as the same ensemble actually chiefly contains the same players. Somewhere or other there in my head there is a grand scheme emerging from this for carefully vetted orchestra exchanges, with transport costs reduced by equipment sharing (not most instruments of course, but percussion, perhaps even harp if needed, and all other gear like music stands), a maintained brand reputation by only swapping with orchestras of similar standard, and concerts in towns a bearable journey from each other, allowing loyalty to something other than the specific orchestra and a slower rotation of more thoroughly known music. But it would require massive buy-in from organisations, effectively a step-change from how classical music runs at the moment.
In the mean time, here’s to the occasions that make it artistically and commercially feasible to repeat classical programmes, for the sake of us that get to perform or hear things better, clearer and with more thorough understanding that way. And to the gigging bands that change things up and give their members (and their most loyal followers) a varied time of it!