George's Programming Secrets

Our Music Director, George Vass, is known for his thoughtful programming of music for concerts. Where does he start when putting a programme together? Alison Maitland asked him about the choices and considerations involved.

Time, venue, cost, orchestration and variety of repertoire are all part of the complex mix. “The first thing I consider is how much rehearsal time we have, and what time of year the concert is,” George says. “I then take the orchestration of the main work and use that as a starting point for the rest of the programme.”

He plans big works, such as the Mozart Mass in C Minor or Handel’s Messiah, for the spring when most of the 100-strong choir is available and there is plenty of rehearsal time.

As some people are away in the summer months, the July concerts are programmed for a slightly smaller choir. Where necessary, extra voices can be brought in. In summer 2017, we are performing a big work, Carmina Burana, along with local primary school children and students from Beaumont School’s talented Vocal Ensemble.

This version of Carl Orff’s classic is for two pianos and percussion, so George searched for other pieces using similar instruments – no easy task. Fortunately, he discovered that composer Cecilia McDowall had a new piece, A Time for All Seasons, for piano, percussion and youth chorus. The other two works, by Bob Chilcott, also use a youth choir.

The Choral Society performs in a variety of venues, chiefly the Abbey and St Saviour’s Church, St Albans, and the Weston Auditorium in Hatfield. Each has a different acoustic and can accommodate a different size of choir and instrumentalists, so programmes have to be tailored accordingly.

“The venue is paramount, as is the type of player accompanying,” George explains. “A professional orchestra of 35 makes a lot more noise than an amateur orchestra of 60. So we can have a large professional chamber orchestra for our bigger pieces. My job is to make sure there’s an even blend between all the parts – choir, orchestral forces, and narrator if we have one.”

The central piece for the 11 November concert in 2017 is the Duruflé Requiem. Of three versions available, George has selected the one using organ, strings, trumpets, timpani and harp. He originally intended to give the programme a French theme. In researching works with similar orchestration, however, he came across the beautiful and little known Stabat Mater by South German composer Josef Rheinberger, who is often compared with Gabriel Fauré, which fitted the bill.

A further consideration, depending on the rest of the programme, is to include at least one well-known or lighter work, to draw audiences in. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (‘Fingal’s Cave’) played this role at the March 2017 concert. Samuel Barber’s searingly sad Adagio for Strings is set to do the same at the autumn 2017 concert.

The cost of putting on some of the largest and best known choral works, notably 20th century giants such as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, is unfortunately prohibitive because they require such huge orchestral forces, says George. Nonetheless, his focus is always on programming a rich mix of classical and contemporary through each season. On 4 February 2018, we will perform an additional concert of hymns and anthems – the type of music usually performed by chamber choirs.

“What sets us apart from other choirs is that we do cover a huge variety of music,” he says. “That mix of music is one of the major reasons why people like the choir so much.”