NOW Ensemble and PROJECT Trio reviews: Connecting Contemporary Music with Contemporary Audiences

Brooklyn-based chamber ensembles show different ways to reach broader audiences.

One of the best things about living for a couple decades in music-mad Austin was being able to head out to any of several clubs and enjoy fresh new music with other 20- and 30-somethings. It was usually what we’d now call Americana or folk-rock, something in that vague territory between country and rock and blues, and included performers like Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and Stevie Ray Vaughan — at covers under $20, sometimes under $10. It’s pretty much what jazz fans could do in New York and other jazz capitals for many years.

I’d love to be able to regularly have that same experience with new music in the classical tradition, the way the folks who wandered into Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig could hear new music by J.S. Bach, or whatever bar Schubert was getting soused in that week, before the classical tradition was hijacked by those (not all) academics, modernists, elitists, conservatives, and the others who’ve made classical music largely something for the insiders, the wealthy, the timid or culturally disconnected niche-dwellers, leaving most popular creative music (and much of the era’s creative energy) to musicians working in pop music traditions, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

For decades, contemporary classical music has struggled to find relatively broad audiences like those who turned out for Liszt and Beethoven in their time, or who explore indie rock today. No one really expects Moda/Hult Center sized audiences that pay three-figure prices for tickets to Lady Gaga or Fleetwood Mac to show up for, say, Kronos Quartet, but the race is not always to the [Taylor] Swift, nor the battle to the strong-armers. For now, it’d be gratifying to see indie rock-sized crowds at concerts of contemporary classical music.

PROJECT Trio performed at The Old Church.

PROJECT Trio performed at The Old Church. Photo: John Green.

We’re starting to see glimpses of classical music’s reconnection to contemporary culture in places like New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge (LPR) and, on nights when Muse:Forward and Classical Revolution PDX is happening, Portland’s The Waypost. When I can walk into a club in most major cities on a weekend and hear contemporary classical music just like I can jazz or rock, we’ll know that classical music has finally recovered from its self-imposed exile from popular culture.

For that to happen, contemporary classical (let’s abbreviate it as CC) groups must play music that connects with a wider range of listeners — and play it in ways and places that actually entertain them, the way any other band would. The notion that art should actually try to appeal to audiences of our own time and place is hardly a radical notion anywhere but in the classical music micro verse. But until recently, it’s foundered on midcentury classical music’s twin shoals: historical fetishization by head-in-the-sand programmers and listeners who regard anything written after the 19th century with fear and loathing, on one hand; and the modernist notion that value exists only in newness and that purveying anything enjoyed by more than a tiny niche of insiders constitutes pandering. The latter aesthetic is well summed up in a quote from the leader of the icily Euromodernist Arditti Quartet, who when asked to compare his ensemble’s glowering aesthetic to their American West Coast contemporaries the Kronos Quartet, which embraces popular as well as avant garde sounds, sniffed, “They’re very concerned about appealing to people ….” Appealing. To people. The horror!

Both attitudes exclude today’s listeners who just want to hear music that’s both forward-looking and relatively broadly accessible to music lovers who aren’t already in the club as well as those who are. Fortunately, that’s been changing lately, and in the space of a few days this month, Oregon received visits from two bands from Brooklyn who explicitly pursue paths between the Scylla of backward-looking irrelevance and the Charybdis of music that appeals to only relatively tiny audiences. Here’s how it went down.

The Sound of NOW

Compared to us laid back West Coasters, New York is supposed to edgy, prickly. But rather than the thorny modernism of years past, the young composers performed by NOW Ensemble (Nico Muhly, Missy Mazola, Judd Greenstein, Mark Dancigers) look to ear-friendlier sources like Philip Glass and his fellow minimalists, even to pop music harmonies, rhythms and even instruments like Dancigers’ electric guitar. Regulars at LPR, NOW connects with audiences more accustomed to contemporary pop sounds — driving syncopated rhythms, conventional harmonies, hooky grooves and emotional expressivity often missing from more consciously avant garde colleagues. Even if it never appeals to, say, the vast legions of teenaged Britney fans, at least its music has hopes of reaching a wider group of listeners than many new music ensembles, including those in Oregon, whose audiences seem to be the more adventurous subset of the already fringe classical music audience — middle-aged and older.

NOW’s populist (at least in the CC world) inclinations have occasioned resistance from critics accustomed to viewing every piece of new music as a Big Statement or at least delivering the Shock of the New. “The new New York School has a healthy distaste for tired conflicts and old campaigns,” wrote New York magazine’s Justin Davidson, one of classical music’s more astute observers. “Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, its composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal.”

NOW’s Judd Greenstein responded with equal thoughtfulness and graciousness, in the kind of productive exchange that’s worth reading, and a welcome relief from the whiny defensiveness and unreasoned name calling we too often see from insecure artists unaccustomed to anything other than small-town boosterism.

Audiences for any music have always been invested in that music primarily for its emotional, spiritual, and social qualities, not its position in some historical trajectory. Audiences have real uses for music that are far from abstract. On the other hand, the people who are most invested in the historical, usually teleological narrative of Western Art Music are the people who have built careers around it, be they composers, performers, historians, writers, or administrators…. We “worry,” in other words, not about what the music says to other music or to other musicians, but rather, about how the music sounds, and feels, and what it does to other human beings when they encounter it.

Some of the music Davidson writes about does remind me a bit of some of the pleasant but inconsequential galant period composers who in reacting against Baroque’s overt emotionalism, put a premium on light, cheery sounds — the MOR, boy band pop of the day. His skepticism is understandable, especially when, thanks to the modernists, we’re so used to every new piece trying to “advance” the art form in some way, a recipe for self-consciousness. Granted, art certainly needs that kind of ambition if it’s to develop.

But a healthy new music ecosystem also needs music that uses traditional and pop forms in fresh ways that can reach wider audiences, just like contemporary indie bands and jazz combos that aren’t afraid to take familiar forms and make new music that’s still original, sometimes surprising and ear friendly, the way NOW founder-composer Greenstein and others have done over the last decade.

NOW Ensemble performed at Alberta Rose Theatre.

NOW Ensemble performed at Alberta Rose Theatre.

That’s what NOW brought to Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre this month. After Muhly’s cheerfully chirping “How About NOW,” Dancigers’ aptly named “Dreamfall” opened gently with delicate piano (Michael Mizrahi), flute (Alex Sopp) and clarinet (Sara Budde), accelerated on a bass pulse (played by Portland native Logan Coale), then interwove lovely minimalist flute, piano and guitar phrases. After a Schubertian opening, Missy Mazzoli’s melancholy “Magic with Everyday Objects” veered in unexpectedly dark harmonic directions, with guitar feedback and chromatic crunchy chords threatening to turn pretty at any moment but never getting there. Portland’s own Douglas Dietrich wrote the elegiac “Memorial” in the wake of the death in a car crash of his and Coale’s West Linn high school band director. With Morton Feldmanesque long tones and pauses sowing a sense of confusion and unresolved loss, it added needed depth and dimension to the program.

The set ended with Greenstein’s breezy “Folk Music,” whose warm bass clarinet and dreamy flute opening evolved into a bass-propelled jazzy feel, then soared gently away, propelled by the piano’s minimalist repeating figure. Here as throughout the show, NOW displayed admirably tight ensemble and uniformly excellent playing, no doubt in part because most of these songs have been in their repertoire for years; too often new music concerts’ otherwise admirable exclusive focus on new works results in under-rehearsed, tentative performances that fail to do the music justice.

I can see how Justin and even a couple of fellow ArtsWatchers who attended NOW’s Portland show and had similar reactions might consider NOW’s sound a bit lightweight. But I listen to music in very different ways depending on my mood, the setting, and other circumstances, and I don’t necessarily need everything I hear to always make me lean forward, desperately trying to discern what’s happening and why and whether it Advances the Art Form. It’s not background music by any stretch, but I listen to NOW’s music the way I listen to a good modern jazz trio or indie rock band: relishing its contemporary fresheness and beauty. NOW’s propulsive, often unapologetically pretty sounds may not have satisfied listeners seeking the Next Big Thing or a life transforming peak experience, but for me, and I suspect for a lot of fans of both classical and pop music, it made a really satisfying concert of 21st century chamber music. When I walk into that as-yet-mythical coffee house or bar in search of today’s classical music, I’d be happy to have NOW as the house band.

We can argue about how well they’re doing it, but NOW’s mission, to return CC music to broad audiences of our time, is the crucial one in classical music today. Groups like NOW could help overcome the fear that keeps too many listeners from trying new CC music. I can imagine them someday reaching an audience similar to that of the artier indie rockers.

Speaking of which…. along with tight performances and relatively new commitment to touring beyond its East Coast origins, NOW also sought audience connection by teaming up with Portland singer/songwriter Zac Pennington, the Parenthetical Girls leader who performed music from his new project Crying, co-composed with Seattle composer Jherek Bischoff and choreographer Steven Reker. While NOW did a credible job, and the odd pairing no doubt brought a bigger audience than either would have drawn separately, the musical esthetics of the two halves of the show didn’t really match.

“Good evening, this is what crying sounds like,” Pennington announced after intermission. Judging by this performance, it all sounds pretty much the same. “Crying explores the intricacies and incongruities of performance personae within the pop form — the pop performer as idol, icon, androgyne, messiah, and martyr — in a union of lyrical narrative, movement, and theatrical staging,” read the program notes. “Inspired in part by the detached, otherworldly elegance of French chanteur Jacques Brel, vocalist and primary performer Pennington projects the character of pop idol as emotional cipher.”

What this translated to onstage was a theatrical, Bowie-esque (circa Thin White Duke period) art rock spectacle in which the charismatic Pennington threw his lanky, rubbery body into a series of choreographed postures, while singing and cavorting with a black balloon and another dancer. At one point, the hard-working singer thrust his microphone into the other dancer’s tights, so that he was singing into her crotch while following her around the stage, at which juncture a few older viewers decided to depart. But amid all the dance-theater motion, the dirge-like music and singing suffered from a sameness that ultimately grew tedious, and it was hard to discern much dramatic arc to sustain interest. I’m curious to see how the project develops. Not every experiment in bridging the gap between classical music and popular culture is going to work, but they’re worth trying.

Reaching Out to Audiences

Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch review of another Brooklyn band, PROJECT Trio, which performed at The Shedd in Eugene, pretty much describes what happened at its sold-out Portland performance at the Old Church, courtesy of Friends of Chamber Music. The band displayed the same ferocious commitment and audience engagement they did the night before in Eugene, and after leading a workshop at a Beaverton school that afternoon, at that — another way to help grow new audiences. Though the music was memorized, their performance felt utterly spontaneous, their stage announcements crisp and often funny (“here’s a piece by that voraciously bearded Bohemian, Brahms!”), and their energetic moves coordinated for maximum impact. Flutist and Northwest native Greg Pattillo said (with his mom in the crowd) noted that one pop record had a big impact on him as a kid learning classical flute. Then he crouched, crossed one leg over the other knee in best Ian Anderson style, and gave us  Jethro Tull’s famous pop version of J.S. Bach’s “Bourree.”

Sorry, these guys are just too photogenic for a single shot. Photo: John Green.

Here’s lookin’ at you. (Sorry, these guys are just too photogenic for only a single shot). Photo: John Green.

PT are extremely physical performers, but their flamboyance never came at the expense of tight musicality as happens too often here, where flashy stage moves often attempt to conceal slips in intonation, ensemble and insufficient rehearsal. And along with some sly takes on classics by Beethoven, Rossini and Prokofiev, they played easy-to-grasp non-classical tunes, including some engaging if not especially memorable originals (in different styles — see Heila’s review) and a new commission from a young composer. Without scores and music stands between them and the audience, the band was free to break through the barrier between audience and performer that so stifles so many classical performances, and devote full attention to getting the music across to the audience rather than getting the notes right.

While playing as tight as NOW had the previous week, PROJECT Trio looked like they were having a blast and wanted the audience to join them. And they did — I’ve rarely seen a response to a classical concert as enthusiastic as the one at the packed Old Church, which appeared to draw a somewhat younger audience than the usual FOCM shows, in part no doubt because of a co-sponsorship with Portland’s jazz radio station KMHD. From the time they seized the stage to the end of the program (when they sincerely thanked the audience for taking a chance on them — how often do you hear classical performers bothering to extend that simple courtesy from the stage?), the classically schooled trio clearly worked hard to connect with the people who’d paid $30 or so to experience their show. And even though the music was even less adventurous than NOW’s, from the grins I could see and the applause I could hear, just about everyone there felt they’d gotten their money’s worth and more.

These two young Brooklyn ensembles demonstrated that even without a program of familiar classics or paradigm-shifting originals, CC musicians can reach audiences beyond the hardcore classical or new music audience. They may not have the total formula yet, but by bringing fresh original music that speaks the language of contemporary culture (albeit sometimes in a different dialect than pop bands), and by devoting considerable effort to memorizing and rehearsing their pieces, performing them with real enthusiasm and tight ensemble, and keeping the audience entertained, groups like these and others such as Time for Three are showing some valuable ways classical musicians can connect with today’s audiences. Imagine the impact when CC musicians combine those powerful connecting strategies with new music that’s equally compelling.

What did you think of either or both shows? Or if you couldn’t make them, check out NOW’s and PT’s video and audio channels and let us know in the comments section below: how well does this music connect — especially if you’re not a hardcore classical or contemporary classical fan?

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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Thanx for this mighty fine article!

    Two quickies please:

    1 – I don’t cotton much to “warm-up acts” – I wanted to hear the NOW Ensemble but had zero interest in suffering through the Parenthetical Girls.

    I also felt this way @ rock concerts a loooong time ago. Going to “experience” Jimi Hendrix was what got me to the gig. Enduring openers – even the likes of Chicago, Soft Machine & Vanilla Fudge – diffused a goodly bit of the evening’s unique focus.

    With reserved seating, I can waltz into “The Schnitz” for only what I wanna hear. Such a luxury is rarely possible with general admission. I mean, seriously, who duh eff wants to queue-up waaay b4 downbeat AND snore through a gaggle of energy & attention debilitating “crud” in order to git to the gettin’?

    2 – Since you squeeze Irvine Arditti into your somewhat agenda-driven “Brettoric,” might you accord his stance a more comprehensive airing? Maybe include the entire quote/context in order that Arditti doesn’t come off quite so one-dimensional – especially for those that aren’t familiar with the enormous scope of his quartet’s ongoing achievements? Just sayin’ . . .

    The JACK Quartet is probably today’s stud SQ that can amble & burn through the false either/or repertoire polarities of the Arditti & Kronos quartets.

    D-Bob sez, check ’em out!

    • Good idea — meant to do that. Link added above.
      As for opening acts, I hear ya, but I sure would have loved to be there that time Hendrix opened for The Monkees, if only to see the expressions on the Prefab Four’s fans’ pretty little faces.
      I’d love to see someone bring the Jack Quartet here because as far as I know, they haven’t been here since I arrived, and I suspect too many Oregonians don’t know Jack.

      • bob priest says:

        Thanx for posting the link to the Arditti/Kronos article above. I hope folks will give it a spin as it covers quite a bit of solid ground.

        The first time I saw Hendrix, he was opening for the Mamas & Papas @ the Hollywood Bowl (67). As soon as he completed his set, I bailed out. Believe it or not, Jimi was essentially booed off the stage by the M & P fans – I guess they didn’t want no stinking “warm-up act” soiling their preferred experience either! :)))

        As for the JACK Q, they played Seattle recently & will be in Vancouver, B.C. this coming March with a kick-ass program. Perhaps the well-heeled folks over @ Friends of Chamber Music &/or Chamber Music Northwest might bring them to Global Village PDX someday . . .

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