Of the many hats choral conductors wear, one of the more challenging ones to put on is that of programmer. In many respects, programming a concert is similar to the act of composition – one tries to build a structure that takes the listener on a coherent journey, presenting a premise or argument, developing it, and leaving them with a compelling idea that changes the way the listener thinks or process an experience. Similar to a Schenkerian structure, a well-constructed program presents an overarching narrative that contains smaller, self-contained episodes, themselves containing even smaller, still-coherent structures – a musical realization of Augustus de Morgan’s musing,

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.

And the great fleas, themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;

While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

Given this structural ideal, there are several “ways in” when trying to assemble a program. The method I have found most fruitful is to come up with a kernel—a programmatic motive—upon which I can expand to build these structures. This kernel often consists of no more than a pair or trio of pieces that go together thematically, musically, and/or textually. A recent program that I assembled—which eventually took in music by Bach, Brahms, Schütz, Reger, and Mendelssohn—began with the pairing of Brahms’ Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? with Reger’s monumental homage to that work, Mein Odem ist schwach. This kernel presented musical, textual, and thematic connections to Schütz’s Ich weiß, dass mein Erlöser lebt—which draws from the same text as the last movement of Reger’s motet—Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, and Brahms’ Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, among many other motets that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor.

Once the central theme and narrative of a program are established, the programmer’s task is to select amongst the many works that may present themselves as complementary to the central kernel in terms of theme, key, tempo, length, language, style, era, and accompaniment. This is not to say that a set within a given program should consist of works that all align in terms of these considerations; on the contrary, it is often advisable to vary the material within a set and between sets in the service of keeping the listeners—and singers—engaged and moving along the narrative arc. This may result in what might be viewed, on the surface, as an eclectic, meandering program – until one looks deeper to uncover the ways the works are connected.

As an exercise, I’ll describe the construction of a program that incorporates several terrific pieces from the See-a-Dot catalog. The kernel of this program is a pair of modern settings of ancient, contemplative Latin texts of the Catholic Church: John Cantrell’s gorgeous Ave Verum Corpus and Joseph Twist’s equally beautiful setting of Versa est in Luctum. The pieces share a number of broad similarities, both aesthetic and thematic: written in neo-Renaissance style, they feature singable lines woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of transparent, heart-rending sound. They employ varying textures of a cappella singing to sweep the listener along their own self-contained musical arcs, building to dramatic climaxes that, when executed precisely and artfully, create breathtaking musical effects.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll dive into the process by which we might fill out our program around this kernel and discuss several challenges that it, and the process, might present us.

Holding degrees in Vocal Arts from USC and Choral Conducting from Yale University, Nate Widelitz has sung under the batons of Franz Welser-Möst, Gustavo Dudamel, and Helmuth Rilling and collaborated with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras and the Cleveland Orchestra. A Fulbright Scholar to Bulgaria, Nate is Assistant Conductor of Pacific Chorale, a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Choir Director at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church of Pacific Palisades, a faculty member at Cal State LA, Mt. San Antonio College, and Los Angeles Valley College, and a co-conductor of the Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles.