project trio

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.


PROJECT Trio review: Generous talent on stage and off

Energetic indie classical band shares its skills with audiences and students.


The high energy, highly skilled musicians of Brooklyn’s PROJECT Trio were well on their way to separate standard classical music careers — maybe even stardom — when they got together one day at their school, the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, to improvise. Encouraged by the success of their first efforts, the flute-bass-cello trio added various, non-classical music interests to the jam session – improvisation format to craft their signature sound. One thing led to another and, as bassist Peter Seymour put it, they “ended up here!” On Wednesday and Thursday, here was the Shedd Institute in Eugene, while on Friday, Friends of Chamber Music brought them to Portland’s Old Church and to a workshop at Beaverton Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

Friends of Chamber Music brought PROJECT Trio to Portland's Old Church. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music brought PROJECT Trio to Portland’s Old Church. Photo: John Green.

The trio has made confident stylistic choices — combining genres to produce highly accessible and engaging music— and committed themselves to the important task of music education. They are generous artists who can make a difference in a student’s or listener’s life that can lead to greater artistry and greater appreciation.

Rhythm, Improvisation, Collaboration

A wonderfully diverse group of students, from a tiny boy with a tinier violin, to a shy glockenspiel player, to an adventurous baby-boomer ukulele and Celtic flute duo, gathered in one of the Shedd Institute’s larger classrooms for PROJECT Trio’s Wednesday evening workshop. Double bassist Peter Seymour opened the session with a series of walking and clapping exercises. After telling the class to set their instruments aside, Seymour brought them together into a large circle as if to start some country circle dancing. By marching the students through a series of simple beats, alternating between hands and feet, Seymour — with great humor and enthusiasm — prepared the way for the rest of the workshop. A difficult three-against-two polyrhythm had everyone shuffling, stumbling, and chuckling, with some students actually succeeding. PROJECT Trio kept the bar high like this throughout, coaxing the students out of their nervousness and pushing them to tackle new ground.

Cellist Eric Stephenson introduced improvisation in the next segment. Having hung his cello from his body by hooking the tuning pegs behind his neck, Stephenson strolled around the interior of the circle like a modern day hurdy-gurdy man, encouraging participants to improvise briefly over simple drones performed by him and the other students. Although the class members’ ability ranged from beginner to intermediate (with one advanced level player), Stephenson kept all students equally involved and encouraged them to step out of their comfort zones. This resulted in some truly beautiful, ephemeral moments from combinations of Celtic flute and ukulele, saxophone and glockenspiel, electronic keyboard and fiddle — and some humorous ones as well. At one point, a young saxophonist honked a classic sax squonk and promptly put his head in his hands in embarrassment. “Don’t worry kid,” Seymour called out. “On any given night in New York City there are at least a dozen sax players playing in clubs who sound just like that!” As the workshop progressed, smiles grew larger.

Next, flutist Greg Pattillo (known for his Youtube videos of beat-box flute technique) got the class grooving on boots and cats and bar-b-que. These words mimic the sound of a drum set and, when combined with vocal plosives and sibilance, form the basis of beat-box style. Finally, the artists brought the students together into trios and coached them through three cycles of collaborative improvisation. Students switched beat-box, drone and improv roles with each cycle. The results again proved musical and surprisingly complex. “Now you can play with anybody!” Seymour declared at the end.

Seasoned Showmanship

At Thursday night’s breathless, break-neck paced, 50-minute concert at the Shedd’s the Jacqua Concert Hall, the musicians’ instruments — silver flute, cedar brown bass and carbon-fiber black cello — flashed, danced and swayed with them as the trio paid homage to classical composers and jazz artists and explored traditional world music territory. Beatbox flute player Greg Pattillo oscillated between a Kokopelli-with-Tourette’s approach and a bottled-sirocco sound that carried most of the melodic and a good deal of the rhythmic responsibilities of the tunes. Bassist Peter Seymour anchored the ensemble, his blissful, Alfred E. Newman smile dissolving the fourth wall of the stage and opening up a flow and ebb of joy between the performers and audience while his powerful pizzicato and lyrical bowing added textural interest to the bottom end. Cellist Eric Stephenson’s crisp rhythmic style and sailing A-string melodies filled the space between bass and flute with elegance and tenor brilliance.

Project Trio played and taught in Portland and Eugene.

Project Trio played and taught in Portland and Eugene.

All of the pieces on the evening’s program received top notch performances. But a few were standouts. The theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was given a tight, humorous arrangement with flutist Greg Pattillo masterfully dropping the beat half way through. Django Reinhardt would’ve been proud of the trio’s Djang-ish, a gypsy swing excursion that conjured images of Harold Hill trying to sell band instruments to Monrovian peasants. Devon Collins’s A Hard Pill to Swallow, the winning entry in PROJECT Trio’s inaugural composition contest, tapped the players’ skills to great effect, luring the ensemble into some of the night’s darker, moodier sounds. The band’s take on Brazilian Choro music, Andre’s New Shoes, was a sexy dance number that had Seymour playing the body of his bass like a giant cajon.

The band’s subtle use of shtick — hamming, wiggling hips and knowing glances — gave the performance the air of an old-time vaudeville act. There was no question they were there to entertain, but at times the goofy footwork and other clowning elements, subtle as they were, threatened to devolve the performance into a talent showcase act. And a lack of break-out soloing and only one slow number (Slow Berry Jam) limited the trio’s aesthetic palette. For a few tunes, the short-form arrangements, choppy John Zorn-esque transitions, and snappy endings created a feeling of a cinematic preview rather than complete pieces. Even so, as the concert moved toward its climactic final number — an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, complete with a Mos Eisley Cantina music reference — the trio’s talent was unmistakable, their showmanship virtuosic and, as evidenced by the enthusiastic applause that followed, the ride thrilling.

Daniel Heila is a composer, songwriter and video artist living in Eugene.

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