Violinist William Shaub: Recital Programming for the 21st Century

July 31, 2022, 8:32 PM · I've come to view violinist William Shaub as one of the most brilliant recital programmers around. As Concertmaster of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Will is responsible for its Concertmaster Series – three recitals that are each performed twice. Will selects the repertoire, as well as the other musicians who will perform with him.

William Shaub
Violinist William Shaub.

Across five years of Will’s programming, I’ve often wondered how he continues to create such interesting, innovative programs. I've heard a great deal of music that was new to me (much of which I loved), paired with a steady diet of my all-time favorites. It's always a well-balanced combination that leaves me looking forward to the next one!

How does he do it? I decided to simply ask, and he kindly agreed to an interview. So last weekend I sat down with Will, who generously shared thoughts on programming. Here are 10 tips he offered from his own personal experience:

1. Don’t be afraid to take some risks.

"Today, violinists are competing with every form of entertainment, from Netflix to Spotify podcasts to sports. A great recital can win because it’s live, it’s fun, and we are expressly passionate about the meaning behind the music. And with our exciting virtuosic repertoire in live performance, we have the terrific element of risk; something audiences love either consciously or subconsciously. In my five years of directing the Concertmaster Series, I’ve committed to taking my audience on journeys that strive for the highest form of artistic expression, and sometimes, that includes some controversy backed by passion. I‘ve been fortunate to have a phenomenal recital partner with me since the beginning, pianist Kevin Class. He takes this journey with me and makes possible our ability to deeply explore amazing repertoire."

2. Find ways to surprise your audience.

"I recently performed Mason Bates’ Ford’s Farm, which was originally commissioned by Hilary Hahn for her Encores album. The audience went absolutely wild for this piece! I was surprised that this short, virtuosic, bluegrass-inspired ditty need not be an encore: you can put it anywhere in a program. In fact, we began the evening with it! And the audience felt it was memorable, fresh, and exciting. Surprising an audience strikes at the most important elements of a great recital: passion for the repertoire, excitement, and, again, the element of risk."

BELOW: Violinist William Shaub and pianist Kevin Class perform a preview of Mason Bates’ "Ford’s Farm."

3. Give your recital a title or theme.

"The title of the program I just mentioned was Beethoven and Folk Music, where we looked at the intersection between this iconic composer and folk inspiration. I cannot recommend enough titling your programs. A great title serves to focus your program thematically, spark curiosity in your audience, and form memories of a great journey taken together."

4. Search for memorability.

"Try new things and new music without fear, and search for that increasingly ever-important factor in the 21st century: memorability. A violin recital today needs to have an unforgettable quality as we compete for the audience’s attention and time. We absolutely must understand that in order to establish goals for a violin recital in the modern age. We need to instill in those brave souls who venture out to hear us perform that there was a reason to get off the couch and away from the comfort of their surroundings."

5. Program music by diverse composers across all time periods.

"When it comes to living composers and contemporary music, I feel very strongly about programming pieces that I feel immense appreciation for – pieces that inspire conviction in me as an artist. Program music that is beautiful, powerful, and speaks profoundly to you so that you can then speak it to your audience. In my programming, you might see a concert with no living composers. A couple months later, you might see two on the same program. I’m searching for great music often within a theme, and through that theme I hope to find great living composers. I have encountered incredible pieces that have become audience favorites – pieces people still mention to me as being memorable. Carlos Simon’s Loop for string trio, Alexandra T. Bryant’s Petrichor, and Kendall Briggs’ Duo Concertante for Two Solo Violins all come to mind." (Author’s note: The Briggs duo is one I absolutely fell in love with upon first hearing.)

6. Balance "audience favorites" with lesser-known pieces.

"My philosophy on audience favorites is that they seriously matter! Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous piano trio, Franck’s Violin Sonata, Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy: they stand the test of time for a reason. We should feel no shame in programming them. But they are part of a dinner plate, a menu of diverse music that we present at a recital. We might have appetizers by Kreisler or a great film composer like Morricone, a first course from Jessie Montgomery, a second course in the form of Beethoven’s 7th Sonata, and maybe dessert with Waxman. I believe variety creates excitement and inspires a memory! I’m less inclined to recommend 'All French' or 'All Beethoven' recitals for this reason. Part of what a great recital should do is educate your audience and prime them for the next one, and most of the time, diversity does that best."

7. Tie in other arts to the works you’re performing.

"From the stage, I once read and unpacked the lyrics to the Schubert song (Die Forelle) that's embedded in The Trout quintet and then the audience had a frame of reference when it was later played by the musicians. I've gone so far as to put the spectacular poetry behind Vivaldi’s Four Seasons directly into the hands of the audience, and I also went briefly through Vivaldi’s word painting prior to performing it. My view is that if it matters deeply to me, it will matter to the audience, and as performers it is precisely that which we must share."

8. Speak directly to your audience, when possible.

"Needless to say, speaking between pieces during your recital is going to depend somewhat on the venue. My Concertmaster Series is performed in a gallery space at the Knoxville Museum of Art, where I am mere feet away from the 200-seat audience that are seated in a horseshoe-shape around me. There is a feeling of being in a grand home, as opposed to a concert hall, and it would almost feel awkward if I didn’t speak to this group. I’ve found that it absolutely adds to the experience and I routinely get this feedback from attendees."

9. Program some virtuosic pieces.

"In my experience, programming virtuosic pieces, such as Sarasate, Wieniawski, and Corigliano, is spectacularly successful with audiences. I’ve taken the great virtuosic repertoire with me to remote cities and towns, and it has roused and inspired audiences that frankly prefer bluegrass (or at least, they thought they did). Eugene Fodor did the same thing, and he was right to do it. Aaron Rosand said, 'Remember the virtuosic showpieces,' and he was right, too. Don’t forget about this music, and don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Program it anyway. You might be surprised how well they turn out."

10. Take into account your personal emotional stamina.

"A mistake I’ve definitely made was not accounting for emotional stamina. An extreme example might be Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in front of a Brahms sonata followed by a Tchaikovsky Piano Trio. It’s a lot of expression to take place in 85 minutes or so. Sure, you met the clock and the 'idea' of variety on some level. But I recommend more emotional variety: it’s almost like having steak for your first, second, and third courses. Not quite ideal! Kreisler, Handel, Corelli, and even contemporary small ensemble pieces are helpful here. And we cannot forget about great film composers like Williams, Morricone, and Chaplin, who Philippe Quint is beautifully championing at the moment. As for physical stamina and length of performances that are most effective with audiences, there’s no need to program too long of a concert. 75 minutes of music can be just as effective, perhaps even more so, than an hour and a half. When competing for audience attention, quality beats quantity and we want our audience to come away wanting more, always."

BELOW: Here is a PBS concert with Will and Kevin filmed in the spectacular Tennessee Theatre, featuring the music of Stravinsky, Mozart, and Gershwin. (Don't miss Stravinsky's beautiful Serenade at 5:39.)

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August 1, 2022 at 07:21 AM · Fascinating article, Diana! It makes an interesting parallel to the discussion of what a concertmaster does, elsewhere on our site, and the musical examples were beautiful.

One thing that worries me though, is the age of the audience - from the high-angle shot of the first video the audience all seem to be my age: late sixties, grey/balding. I find this pattern in most of the concerts I attend, with the single exception of the local water authority which, rather improbably, has converted a former pumping station into an attractive hall with good acoustics, and gets a youngish audience for once-a-month chamber music. I am anxious that future generations may grow up without knowledge or access to the music that has fascinated and sustained me.

August 1, 2022 at 02:04 PM · What a wonderful programming discussion! These tips are good for all programming—including choral concerts. I absolutely love the idea of surprise. Thank you, Diana, for interviewing Will and sharing his genius with us!

August 1, 2022 at 02:34 PM · Richard, Thank you! (I'm assuming you saw Will's discussion of what the Concertmaster role is in his PBS recital.) As for the audience, I share your concern (and that's also quickly becoming my demographic, balding part withstanding). That said, the "graying of audiences for classical music" discussion has been around since I was a kid. So I've never quite understood the phenomenon, although there's no question it's real. Your comment about venue is a good one; I've noticed that arts organizations need to go where the younger people are! (You may have prompted me or someone else to write about this topic!)

Christina, Thank you for your lovely comment!

August 1, 2022 at 03:43 PM · The concern about the age of the audience has indeed been around a long time. I remember people worrying about it when I was young. But somehow the problem has not gotten worse all these decades.

Most people in middle age have a very busy life, career and children at the same time. So they are missing out on this part of life for quite a few years. When the hair starts to go grey is about the time when one has some more time for oneself, so one goes to recitals and concerts again--or maybe for the first time in life. This is at least part of the reason for the overrepresentation of geezers int the audience (and among amateur chamber players).

August 2, 2022 at 10:59 PM · I loved this article Diana. Thank you for it. It was so nice to read about Will who I know so well and with whom I've done so many operas. First, I love the fact that he balances audience favorites with lesser-known pieces. One of the favorites that he mentioned is definitely one of my favorites, Franck's Violin Sonata. I listen to it at least a few times a week and many times while I'm working out at the gym. Another favorite that I'd love to hear him play, with a cellist of course, is the Arensky Piano Trios. Second, the fact that he feels that if it matters to him, it will matter to the audience really tells me that in a recital I'm really getting to know him and that's why I'm there. And I'd take an appetizer by Kreisler any day (could be a main course too!). I loved the recital especially the Gershwin. Thank you Diana and thank you Will and Kevin.

August 2, 2022 at 11:17 PM · Albrecht, You make some excellent points! Thank you!

Joe, Always great to hear from you. I remember your love of the Franck (although I hadn't realized it was workout fare)! I'm so glad you enjoyed "Will's Wisdom" as well as the recital. Your comments are always greatly appreciated.

August 5, 2022 at 11:25 PM · Good advice from a real artist. It was a real joy hearing him play at this year's Rossini Festival.

August 6, 2022 at 01:36 PM · Teresa, He really did play beautifully that day! It was wonderful to share that experience with you!

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