Every flute choir director faces the dilemma of what to program. Creative programming can make the performance a more interesting artistic and intellectual experience for both performers and audience.
In the United States the personnel of flute choirs vary from ensemble to ensemble. A few groups are comprised of professional performers while others are a mixture of community members plus university faculty and students. The most common roster is an ensemble composed of students of similar ages and level of advancement that is sponsored by a private flute teacher or hosted by a university. Rarely is the playing level of the flutists equal. Directors should start with an evaluation of the mean playing level of the group and select a program to center around this level. For example, if the average level is a three, most of the selections on the program should be a two or a three with one level four piece as a challenge. Selecting a program with several works that are too difficult will frustrate players, and they will struggle with notes and rhythms and neglect ensemble skills.
The average flute choir has between 12 and 20 members. The standard orchestration is three C flute parts, one piccolo, one alto, and one bass (optional contra). With 12 players, the parts should be distributed three on first, three on second, three on third, one on piccolo, and one each on alto and bass for the best balance. For 20 players, five on first, five on second, five on third, one on piccolo, and two each on alto and bass. As the group size increases assign more to the lower parts. If you have more C flutists than are divisible by three, assign the extra flutists equally to parts two and three rather than to part one. Some flute choir repertoire has flutists doubling on percussion instruments. Some compositions may include another instrument such as a cello, string bass, piano or harp or a spoken or sung vocal part.
Programmatic vs. Absolute
Program music is a term applied to compositions which have a literary, historical, or pictorial reference. Programmatic orchestral works include Hector Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, tone poems by Richard Strauss such as Don Juan, and Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. If there is no suggestion of a program, the music is called absolute or pure music. Most of the instrumental music of the Baroque and Classic periods is absolute (Sonatas, Concertos, Symphonies). A concert of one programmatic composition after another often becomes tiring for listeners.
Original vs. Transcriptions
The origin of the flute choir may be traced to the recorder consorts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) wrote six concertos for five flutes in which he wanted each part to be doubled by several players. In 1796-1798 Franz Joseph Haydn began part three of his oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation) with a glorious flute trio. Flutist composers such as Kaspar Kummer (1795-1870) and Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) contributed to the repertoire writing duos, trios, or quartets which flutists continue to perform today with added flutists to each part. However, it has only been since the early 1980s that there has been an influx of compositions written specifically for flute choir. Since most of the repertoire has been written in the last thirty-five years, the similarity of compositional styles and preferred genres has offered limited choices for flute choirs. To provide stylistic and historical contrast, works, especially orchestral and vocal compositions, have been transcribed for flute choir. While directors try to program original works for the flute choir, a transcription inserted here or there offers a wider selection of works to study and perform.
Style and Form
The four main style periods of chamber music are Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Contemporary. While it is possible to successfully a program entirely from one era, a composition is usually better featured if there is a work in a contrasting style before and after it. Consider the proficiency level of the group and the sophistication of the audience when determining an appropriate balance.
The same forms found in the symphonic tradition also exist in flute choir chamber music. These include dances, marches, sonatas, suites, theme and variations, and concertos as well as Romantic character pieces. Select a variety of styles and forms for an interesting performance. One option might be to organize works from newer to older or older to newer.
If all of the compositions are in the same key, listeners’ and performers’ ears become dulled. One well-known programmer reminded his students if the first piece is in D major, the last piece should not be. Never play two pieces in a row that are in the same key. A few years ago I presented a flute recital titled Homage to Bach. However, there were no pieces by Bach on the program. While you might argue that Bach influenced every composer, the homage referred to letters that spelled Bach’s name – Bb, A, C, B natural. The four pieces on the program were in this key order. Afterwards several audience members successfully figured out the theme. To paraphrase Nadia Boulanger, “Play (program) all your music in a way that the audience will quite naturally feel intelligent.”
Duration and Dynamics
Anshel Brusilow suggests in his book Shoot the Conductor: Too Close to Monteux, Szell, and Ormandy (University of North Texas Press) that it is best to select between 80 and 85 minutes of music. This works well for an orchestra with a large variety of instruments, but for a flute choir, a little under an hour of music plus a short intermission works better. Brusilow’s programming strategy is to program pieces in the following order: loud, soft, loud, intermission, soft, loud. Other orchestral conductors program in the OCIS format. This stands for overture, concerto, intermission, and symphony. An OCIS program for flute choir could be Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Overture, Mozart’s Concerto for Flute in D, K. 314, intermission, and Benjamin Britten’s A Simple Symphony. Another popular programming strategy is to program a composition that is unknown, one that is sort-of-known, and one that is well-known. This type of programming helps educate the audience without alienating them with entirely unfamiliar music.
Halloween and Holiday concerts are always a favorite of performers and audiences. Some groups dress in costumes based on the theme and encourage audience members to do the same. Some use sets, pumpkins, Christmas trees, and candles to further the ambiance. Often one or more of the pieces on the program may be a sing-a-long.
For the Las Vegas National Flute Association convention, I brought two flute choirs to perform. One group’s program was titled By George. Not only was I the ensemble coach for this group, but every piece on the program was written by a composer who had George someplace in his name. Included were Georg Philip Telemann, George Gershwin, and Thom Ritter George among others. The other flute choir performed the program 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The first piece was in five parts, the next in four, etc., and we concluded by playing the J.S. Bach Partita in A Minor: Sarabande in unison.
The objective for a flute choir should be to perform together as friends and colleagues and share the joys of playing music. Another aim is to elevate the playing level of members and refine ensemble skills. For audiences flute choirs should attempt to educate and entertain. Creative programming can help accomplish all of these goals.