Looking back over all the accounts of concerts I have accumulated since launching this blog, I found myself thinking about how many of them involved a program for the evening that was based on some kind of organizing theme. This is a far cry from the way concerts were organized when I first started attending them. The usual model seemed to be that a concert would involve three compositions, two of which preceded the intermission. The program would begin with something short and relatively familiar, if not an established warhorse. An overture would make for a useful play on its terminology but was not obligatory. This would be followed by a work that featured a soloist and/or a new composition. Then after the intermission there would be the "blockbuster warhorse."
As is the case with any rules, there were, of course, exceptions. For example the last season concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra was a "request program," which usually involved the "winners" of a poll of subscribers, none of which required an "imported" soloist (but might involve a member of the Orchestra). The works themselves were then ordered in such a way that the two halves of the evening took roughly the same amount of time. About the only time one would encounter a concert with a theme would be in a Children's or "Youth" (as in high school) concert, where you had to listen to the conductor tell you what the organizing theme was and why all the compositions were relevant to it. It all added up to too much talk (usually poorly delivered) and not enough music.
I am not sure when I first became aware of a themed program designed with the adult audience in mind. However, I have a feeling that the first one I encountered was shortly before I left the Boston area, having completed my doctoral work. This was shortly after Michael Tilson Thomas had become the Assistant Conductor at the Boston Symphony; and he was given the liberty to prepare a few (four?) concerts of works that were off of just about any beaten path you could imagine. Unless I am mistaken, one of those concerts had to do with unusual ways to use keyboards and may even have involved a near-riot that broke out over a performance of Steve Reich's "Four Organs."
When I was living and working in the New York area, I remember that the first season of Ransom Wilson's Solisti New York Orchestra involved themed programs, the very first of which was "Meet the Minimalists." Reich figured in that one, too, since a high point of the evening involved Wilson exchanging his baton for his flute for a performance of "Vermont Counterpoint" in which all the flute parts were "live." It was pretty awesome. It was also my first exposure to John Adams' "Grand Pianola Music," which was not particularly well received by the audience. I think the audience reaction may have had more to do with a "rivalry of the coasts" than with the music, though. It was certainly the most "maximal" of the "minimalist" compositions and seemed to be driven by a relatively wacky sense of humor (which I later heard Adams acknowledge, in somewhat more refined language, in a pre-concert talk).
I find it interesting that I associate Thomas with my earliest memory. Presumably, he has a strong hand in what gets programmed for each season of the San Francisco Symphony; and I suspect that his hand has a lot to do with having programs that can be taken in as a whole. Saying that he has had an influence on programs by other ensembles I have heard (particularly the visiting ones) may, however, be taking things too far. More likely is that my evenings at the San Francisco Symphony have conditioned me to finding patterns (which Gerald Edelman would say is the bedrock of our very consciousness), even when those patterns were not intended. That "consciousness connection," however, is an important one, since consciousness plays a strong role (if not the only role) in how the experiences of the past influence the perceptions and actions of the present. (Those remarks that John Adams made about "Grand Pianola Music" discussed the context of recent activities in which that composition was conceived.)
Much of the literature of consciousness tends to focus on areas such as visual perception (where much of the experimental data are based on static images, the easiest to manage in a laboratory setting) and linguistic behavior (where all of the data involve the manipulation of symbols through operations that are particularly conducive to computer technology). Listening behavior rarely receives as much attention; and much of the attention it does receive has to do with speech recognition, which, without trying to sound too reductive, is a matter of translating time-domain signals into a particularly reduced class of symbols. It is only when we try to broaden our scope to an area such as listening to music that we have to contend with the formation of perceptual categories that could not take place without an underlying foundation of the very consciousness of time itself, a question of consciousness that has challenged some of the sharpest minds going at least as far back as the days of Aristotle. From such a perspective themed programs may actually serve sort of like a set of "training wheels" (but without any pejorative connotations) for the formation of time-based perceptual categories; and, if we are well "trained" by these experiences, then we are likely to discover that, even if the program does not induce category formation, our capacity for perceiving those categories will be as robust as ever.