Whether it be for a classical music performance or for a radio track list, I believe whole-heartedly, that there should be a purpose to every program you put together. Perhaps this purpose is connected to an emotion such as grief or love. Perhaps it is associated to a place such as Rome, a graveyard, a doorway, a carnival... Perhaps it is associated to technical difficulty, derived from the most technical and difficult pieces you could possibly get your hands on...
A program should flow and meld together creating an inner connection. Just as the movements of a symphony, your program from beginning to end should have variety that flows together. I like to open with something that is flashy; in a recital it would typically be a horn call or fanfare. For an ensemble it is perhaps a smart move to begin with something the audience can relate to, something that asks for their attention without being too demanding. Conclude with a piece that is a good closer. What exactly is a good closer? For abbreviated purposes it should send the audience away happy with a catchy and easily remembered piece, maybe even something that will remind them of the name of your group.
The program should be venue and location appropriate. If you play in a graveyard, for example, you probably do not want to play perky and loud music or if your are performing in a pub you should veer away from a sad and slow program. Keep your program audience appropriate too. If you are playing for tried and true Texans, performing the Maryland state song and avoiding country tunes is probably a bad idea. Just as if you are playing for a Jewish ceremony, Christian wedding hymns are not going to win you any encores. A good way to choose a program that is venue and location appropriate, without being too obvious or repetitive, is to think of your venue and write down a few words that relate to it.
For example you contract a brass quintet gig for an evening outdoor gig in Gettysburg on a battlefield. You go and visit the location. It has an old standing oak near where you are playing. It is early fall and the leaves are just hinting at their vibrant colors. In this example you have several elements: the civil war, a battlefield, Fall, evening, superstition, probably a wind blowing, mountains in the background, etc. Well the Civil War.... men in uniform.. North and South fighting for freedom, for glory... boys who pretended to be men.
There are so many different directions you could shape a program in this example...
One way.. imagine a 16 year old boy laying with his head on his rucksack in a trench close to the bows of the oak gazing up at the stars through the mist of his breath dreaming of what?.. his sweetheart back home, his mamma's cooking, his little brother reading him a story, his pa smoking a pipe by the fire...find pieces to fit this web you are trying to weave.
Another way to spin off from this scenario is obviously honoring the dead, honoring their sacrifice, respecting their resting place. Place yourself in the shoes of their loved ones back home, in the shoes of their last breath... and program what you might have as a soundtrack behind these situations, these moments in time.
We as classical musicians often forget that music has power. It can cross boundaries that most politics envy. It can bring comfort and peace to the heart stricken, bring joy and happiness to the sad, celebrate with the one listening, give courage in times of need, and even fuel anger and hatred... Music has been known to breed chaos and even drive insanity. As musicians I believe we should build upon this, use our gift to help people find what they are looking for inside themselves.