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Emily Hogstad

Something Old, Something New: Some Reflections on the Minnesota Orchestra's Inside the Classics Project [2/2]

November 17, 2011 at 8:58 PM

In November 2010 the Inside the Classics team announced they were commissioning a major new orchestral work by Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein. Okay, whatever, big deal; commissions like this happen all the time, right? Wrong. This project is unique on a variety of levels. It wouldn’t be financed by one major donor, or a fund contributed to by major donors; instead, it would be paid for by ordinary people who would each chip in anything from $1 to $1500. Bergman and Hicks labeled this project the “Microcommission.” A donation page was set up on the Minnesota Orchestra website, and at the end of each 2010-2011 Inside the Classics concert, viola cases were scattered throughout the lobby, in which audiences were encouraged to drop any spare cash. (I knew viola cases were good for something!) By June 2011, hundreds of people had given $20,000, enough to buy the Inside the Classics audience a brand new orchestral work. Leading up to the big premiere in March 2012, Greenstein – a thoughtful, engaging young composer who writes appetizing music influenced by a wide variety of genres – is contributing his thoughts about his work and the creative process on the Inside the Classics blog. (He wrote a mind-bogglingly interesting entry this month about nomenclature and why he’s hesitating to call this new work a symphony. If that kind of thing floats your boat, you’ll want to check it out.) He was even a part of the Shostakovich 5 show this week, elaborating on the idea of how composers “steal” from one another, employing an extended metaphor about a very tasty crouton. (Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was entertaining and enlightening.) Next January he’s going to be in Minneapolis again to provide input on the next Inside the Classics show on John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives, and of course he’ll be an integral part of the March season finale at which his new piece will be dissected and premiered. And as if there wasn’t enough going on already, he and Bergman have just launched a project called The Listening Room, described here as “an online book club, only with music instead of books.” Together the two of them are going to be soliciting questions from blog readers, resulting in a (hopefully) absorbing discussion of the music that has influenced Greenstein. (Even if you live nowhere near Minnesota, you can take part in this. So stay tuned.)

(Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, during a visit to New York earlier this year, Bergman conducted a five-part video interview with Greenstein in which they discuss everything from Milton Babbitt to the future of live music to social experiences in the concert hall. So yeah. They’ve been busy.)

The microcommission is one of those ideas that is so painfully obvious, it’s embarrassing that nobody in the classical music world has embraced it yet. (At least not that I know of, anyway.) The idea of microfunding has permeated our modern digital culture, from the emails we get from various politicians and fundraising organizations begging for “small donations of just $5, $10, or $20!” – to celebrities going on Twitter hiatuses until their fans chip in a certain amount of cash for various charitable purposes – even to late-night television, where this April Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert sang a duet of Rebecca Black’s Friday as a reward for their audiences after 2000+ viewers raised nearly $120,000 for the awesome website Donors Choose. So heck, why not extend the concept to orchestral music? All the cool kids are doing it, so why can’t we nerds have some fun with the idea, too?

The Inside the Classics team didn’t stop there, even though they easily could have done so, and patted themselves on the back for their innovation, to boot. But they didn’t. They realized they could seize this opportunity to get even more creative: to use new technology to connect audience members and to help them form an emotional and intellectual connection to “their” piece and its composer. (By the way, their selection of Judd Greenstein as the microcommission composer was an inspired one. He very neatly and effectively shatters the myth that all contemporary composers live in lonely unheated garrets, suffering from acute social anxiety disorder and writing hideous cacophonous things that they swear to God our grandchildren will understand.)

(Case in point, Greenstein’s fantastic quartet Four on the Floor, performed by, you guessed it, members of the Minnesota Orchestra.)

(Also, to lure you into watching this... Bergman has a mildly entertaining page-turn mishap sometime during the course of the video. I'll let you figure out where. Now you *have* to watch, right?)

After the show on Shostakovich 5, the audience was invited to stay for a post-concert performance of Greenstein’s quartet Four on the Floor. This high-voltage piece was performed by four musicians from the orchestra (including Bergman, who obviously had a bit of a full plate this weekend). It’s a fun piece to listen to, but it’s even more fun to watch. Complicated rhythms ricochet back and forth between the parts, and at times the first and second violins seem like they’re in a wild dance-to-the-death with the viola and cello. After the final virtuosic chords ripped through the hall, the audience – which was bigger than I thought it would be – burst into wild applause. It was quite a sight to see the ensemble and the composer taking their bows together onstage: three ridiculously accomplished members of the orchestra, the violist/writer/host who has put so much thought and creativity into making this series happen, and the young up-and-coming composer who I feel is on the edge of unleashing some very, very exciting sounds that even small-town Midwestern me will be able to appreciate. I hope I’m able to make it to Minneapolis in March to see the final result of this creative ferment.

That being said, I have no idea how the project will pan out. Nobody knows yet if audiences will like Greenstein’s new piece, or if tickets will sell. Speaking more broadly, I don’t know how many more years the Inside the Classics series or blog will go on, or if the concept could survive in any meaningful form if either Bergman or Hicks would, for whatever reason, give up their ItC duties. But maybe, in some weird way, that’s all beside the point. Maybe it’s the mere willingness to experiment that matters. Because even if certain aspects of the project fall short of expectations, chances are, others won’t. And some might even exceed them. Actually, it’s totally within the realm of possibility that the Minnesota Orchestra is starting new concertgoing traditions that will serve to deepen their audience’s appreciation for old and new music alike. That’s exciting. That’s thrilling. Maybe musicians in other cities will sit up and take note and try similar things, customizing ideas for their own individual communities. And maybe in the process we’ll finally shut up at least some of the people who take such sadistic pleasure in telling us that no matter what we do, we and the music we love are doomed to perpetual irrelevance. God, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

* * *

Where is orchestral music headed? Are we in our final death throes, like everyone keeps insinuating we are (like we keep telling ourselves we are)? Is an out-of-the-box approach going to charm an audience that comes largely for old programming served up in a traditional manner? Can we get an audience that thrives on new experiences to buy tickets to the warhorses, as long as they’re performed with passion and commitment? Can we serve both demographics, or even get the two demographics to mix? Are either of those ideas wise in the long-run? What traditions will tomorrow’s audiences embrace? What will our programs look like ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? Will there come a day when wordless all-music concerts will be heavily supplemented by concerts with affable, intelligent hosts? Will more orchestras start employing eloquent, opinionated bloggers as tools to establish deeper connections with their audience? Will we eventually be expected to communicate about music just as effectively with words as we do with our instruments?

I’d be a presumptuous ass to say I knew the answers to any of those questions. I’m wary of anyone who claims with any certainty to see the future. But I do know that my life as a listener has been vastly expanded by the new approaches the Minnesota Orchestra is trying, and you know what? For me, that’s reason enough to love what they’re doing, and to encourage other musicians in other communities to think about following at least some of their leads at least some of the time.

Because I want other music-lovers to have the same exciting experiences I’ve had. I want other people to come to concerts totally absorbed by stupid inconsequential things, then be transported to other times and places via the power of thought-provoking writing and music. I want witty charming intelligent musicians onstage sharing their thoughts about the repertoire. I want insights to bring back home to my own listening – insights that I simply won’t ever get in a traditional music-only concert. I want other people to have mind-expanding experiences with the work of living composers, and maybe even with the actual living composers themselves. In short, I want other people to get the same joy out of orchestral music that this blog and this series and this orchestra has given to me. I hope to God that’s not an impossibly naive wish.

So if you’re in the Minneapolis area, buy a ticket to an Inside the Classics show, give it a try, and let me know what you think. (I don’t think Sam or Sarah would mind hearing your thoughts, either, positive or negative!) If your own local orchestra has a similar program, try it out; see what works and what doesn’t. Putting on these kinds of concerts and utilizing new technologies are just two of the many tools available to us orchestral musicians as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. If audience-cultivating methods like these can succeed, maybe – maybe? – we’re not quite as close to dying off as we like to think.

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