In 1900–01, the English writer and composer Donald Francis Tovey helped establish the program note, with musical examples in the text, as essential to the concertgoing experience with the two essays he wrote to prepare the London public for his performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. He had them published “on soft, rough paper that turns noiselessly.” His intention, according to the musicologist Michael Tilmouth, was that they “be read prior to the concerts, having been published about a week beforehand. Then, during the concert, the musical quotations could be used as visual aids to the aural experience of the music. He wanted to demolish the idea that everything in classical music is obvious to the meanest capacity. ‘I know it isn’t obvious to me,’ he said.”
Since then, program notes have grown to include not just information on the music and its greater context but also player biographies, donor information, and season promotions. But that’s not to say the format or content are static—many organizations are beginning to rethink both. When the first Rotterdam International Conducting Competition put together its program book last year, instead of conventional resumé-type biographies of the six finalists, it used 300–400 word excerpts of half-hour interviews. The brief provided by director Rob Hilberink was “to add more depth than just dry biography bullets by helping to define the individual character of each musician.” The difference was dramatic. It was designed to extend and amplify the audience experience. The pull quote for winner Bertie Baigent’s bio read: “You feel like you are on a train that’s unstoppable.”
In order to find out whether this was happening anywhere except Rotterdam, I spoke to representatives of the Los Angeles, Berlin, and Royal Liverpool philharmonics; the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; the Nashville Symphony; the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; the Manchester Collective, White Snake Projects, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall; and InsideGuide. Improving artist bios turned out to be a trend everywhere—to one extent or another—and reflective of an industry that is retooling not just artists’ bios but the traditional printed program book itself. As major orchestras migrate online, where many of their audience members are now attending performances, they are addressing the issues and opportunities surrounding digital program platforms more and less enthusiastically and at their own pace.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s head of editorial Tobias Möller expresses the general consensus that printed programs are still relevant “as part of our overall communications.” As to the relevance of program books, printed or digital, Möller says, “They contribute to an intense concert experience by giving the context of a concert and how the composers and musicians reflect our own lives.”
In Berlin’s case, most content is not produced exclusively for printed programs but also for its online channels. And in its biographies, Möller says, “we avoid the usual listings of competitions and orchestras an artist has worked with. Instead, we try to convey an idea of his or her personal and artistic identity.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic uses a Q&A format similar to the Rotterdam model in place of bios for its Symphonies for Youth concerts. The main LA Phil program books, however, use traditional bios. Either way, “program books are an important part of the experience,” says publicist Holly Wallace, “and we get a lot of feedback from our audience that shows people still enjoy getting to read about the music—important for an organization that presents so much new and contemporary music—and the detail involved is often easier to read in print than on a phone. While we are always looking to improve our digital offerings, particularly to audiences who want that, we also recognize that the glow of a digital screen is not welcomed by all in a concert hall.”
The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, according to director of public relations Jen Luzzo, was among the first of the major presenters not to renew with Playbill and instead put their program information entirely online. The Kennedy Center still provides printed programs for theater and opera because of a contractual agreement with the national trade association Broadway League. For concerts and chamber music, however, it’s all digital, although they do provide a one-page sheet with the basics.
“In keeping with the digital times we live in,” publicist Grace Filmer reports, “the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic does not produce printed programs. All the program material is available online, consisting of interactive multimedia elements and Behind the Music videos about specific pieces, and is usually released about a week prior to the concert. Within the biographies we produce, we try to include at least one YouTube video embedded into the program notes to provide more color about a composer’s work or a soloist’s performance style.”
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which made the transition to all-digital programs at the beginning of the 2021–22 season, stresses that making artists’ bios more dynamic was implicit on a digital platform. “Program notes, photos, artist biographies, and other content contained in programs make for a more deeply engaging experience,” chief patron development officer Lindsey Hansen tells me. “And while this content is meaningful, it can be provided digitally, and programs do not need to be in printed format to have significant impact.” The orchestra even attaches QR codes to armrests in their concert venues so patrons can quickly access the digital program by scanning the code.
“We encourage audience members to access the program on their mobile devices during performances, and we remind them at the beginning of each concert to double check that their devices are silenced. We have not experienced an increase in phones ringing during concerts since the transition to digital programs, and our audiences have largely embraced this shift away from printed programs.”
One of those moving at a slower pace is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for whom printed program books are part of an overall artistic experience. Its public relations director Eric Dundon tells me that the SLSO has put more effort in connecting its program books to digital content but says that their program books have not changed much over the past few years. “We find program books are still quite relevant. They’re accessible to anyone, whether or not they have a mobile device. Our music director Stéphane Denève often speaks about how we are an overstimulated society. He says that orchestra concerts are a unique opportunity to have a more present, less distracted experience. Printed program books extend that experience.”
Sometimes printed material still makes an appearance online due to the enthusiasm of concertgoers. At Carnegie Hall, which also continues to provide printed programs for each concert, chief communications officer Synneve Carlino says that “concertgoers tell us they value having the printed program. Many audience members and artists say they keep the printed programs as personal keepsakes. One trend we’ve noticed with Broadway attendees and music audiences is people taking photos of their program for social media. We love it when people share with their friends that they are enjoying a Carnegie Hall concert.”
In February 2022, arts technology company InstantEncore launched a digital program book platform called InsideGuide to provide “a safer, greener, and more cost-effective alternative to printed programs” and already boasts a roster of more than 20 orchestras. Chief marketing officer David Dombrosky summarizes the attributes of the coming digital wave: “The technology is ready and in place. Orchestras can reduce their physical contact points onsite and cut printing costs while simultaneously earning ad revenue and providing patrons with an interactive companion for their performance experience. I think the real question is, what are we waiting for?”