Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Urban Orchestra

                There are always those months associated with certain events. For the Pulitzer Prizes, April is the month of anticipation. In the world of fashion, September is “the January in fashion.” Theater fans sit at their television screens excitedly in June for the Tonys. And for the classical music world, this time of eagerness (while there is no official month) is often around February or March. Why? This is the month that symphonies, orchestras, and philharmonics often announce their upcoming seasons. Press notices for “immediate release” are emailed and published to everyone. There are opinions, judgments, and ticket reserving. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, one of the most respected orchestras in the country, announced their 2011-2012 season around a week ago. I opened the press release wondering why it was published much later than many others. Then I began to read. And, honestly, with music this exciting in the BPhil’s future, who cares when programs are usually announced.
                The most likely reason for the later-than-usual announcement is the appointment of a new music director in January (in fact, its pretty impressive that the program is as amazing as it is in such a short amount of time!). The Brooklyn Philharmonic orchestra appointed Alan Pierson, the 36-year-old conductor of Alarm Will Sound and Crash Ensemble, as the orchestra’s music director this past January, living up to its “hipper-than-hip image!” according to Alex Ambrose of WQXR. Pierson precedes the names of Theodore Eisfeld, the orchestra’s inaugural conductor, Theodore Thomas, Siegfried Landau (who started to give the orchestra a contemporary direction), the composer Lukas Foss, Dennis Russell Davies, Robert Spano, and Michael Christie. Many critics have been elated over the choice of Pierson, saying that he will live up to the image of Brooklyn itself, the needs of the orchestra, and the needs of the community. In a few different news articles in January, Jack Rainy, the orchestra’s board president, was quoted as saying, “Brooklyn is the coolest place on the planet for music, and Alan knows that. Landing on him was a dream.” The Brooklyn Philharmonic in past years has been in trouble—so much, in fact, that they cancelled the main part of their 2009-2010 season. Like so many orchestras around the country, this can come like a death sentence. However, many have faith in Pierson. I may not live in Brooklyn or anywhere near, but I somehow have faith as well.

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A psychedelic shot of the BPhil

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Alan Pierson. How hip!
                On the press release for the upcoming season, the BPhil calls themselves the “urban orchestra.” While lots of ensembles around the country are now floating on the “contemporary” wave, the BPhil seems to be one of the few orchestras that is trying to be a contemporary ensemble and to adapt to the current times, not just play contemporary music. The BPhil’s 2011-2012 program seems to focus on three areas that secure their name as the “urban orchestra”: the music they are playing, the areas that they are playing in, and the ways that the specific music and the communities relate. The orchestra is playing their season in three different neighborhoods around the city; Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brighton Beach, and downtown Brooklyn. In each community, the orchestra is giving an orchestra concert, a chamber concert (with readings from authors), and a family event, ranging from cartoon drawing to shape note singing. The BPhil is obviously putting effort into becoming an orchestra that adapts to the changing times. Instead of playing in the same venues with the same mix of people, the ensemble is reaching out to the people that it needs—it audiences—and involving them in the process of art instead of just the results. Along with this crucial step, they are also introducing great contemporary music.
                After two preview concerts in October, the BPhil begins their season in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was named “Little Odessa” a long time ago because of many of the residents being from Ukraine. Russian animation is one of the focuses of the Brighton Beach concerts, and local Russian artists and the Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm are helping the BPhil present old and new Russian cartoons. The orchestra will be playing scores by Shostakovich and Vyacheslav Artyomov while actors voice the parts of the characters. By teaming up with artists and focusing on different types of expression, the BPhil is transcending the typical view of classical music—pretentious and stuffy. That’s one of the things a contemporary ensemble should do, in my opinion. The Brighton Beach chamber concert is titled “Sergei Dovlatov: Notes of Freedom in Brooklyn” and centers in on some of the favorite music and stories of the author Sergei Dovlatov. Music by Schnittke, Pärt, Shostakovich, and Gubaidulina (one of the most respected female composers of the 20th/21st centuries) will be played.  For the family part of the Brighton Beach stopover, children and their families are invited to “Cartooning & Music Making,” where music and art teachers will read stories, draw cartoons, and compose music inspired by folktales with them. Then, a quartet from the BPhil musicians will play the children’s compositions. Actually, can I sign up for this? Right now?

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an old shot of Brooklyn
                Then comes the Downtown Brooklyn series. Inspired by Francis Guy’s painting “Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” the works in the program all have some type of connection to Brooklyn itself. Brooklyn residents, such as David T. Little and Sarah Kirkland Snider, are the focused composers. And, as if the concert couldn’t get more Brooklyny, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be joining the BPhil. Beethoven’s “Scherzo” from his third symphony will be played, as well as Britten’s “Carry Her Over the Water” and G.F. Bristow’s “Nocturno” from his Symphony in F# minor, op. 26. Sarah Kirkland Snider, the composer of the song cycle “Penelope” and other amazing works,” will be premiering a new choral work commissioned by the BYC. David T. Little’s Winter Scene will be premiered as well, a piece co-commissioned by the BPhil and the BYC. Also, the mostly-indie artist Sufjan Stevens will have the sixth movement of his symphonic work (“Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges”), The B.Q.E., which was premiered by BAM for their Next Wave Festival. The work is a “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway” and has a film by Stevens playing while the orchestra provides the soundtrack. Downtown Brooklyn’s chamber concert will feature the writer Phillip Lopate and the music of American classics like Gershwin and Copland. For the family workshop, Winter Scene will be the subject of a shape note singalong with the BPhil.

Mos Def--photo by Scott Sanders
                And finally, Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) will be the last neighborhood for the BPhil. Mos Def, an acclaimed hip hop and spoken word artist (Def Poetry), is from Bed-Stuy and will be joining the BPhil along with singer Leslie Uggams to form a program like no other—one that combines original Beethoven, remixed Beethoven, songs by Cole Porter and others, and songs performed by Mos Def. For the Beethoven Remix Project, composers from anywhere were invited to remix the finale of his Eroica symphony. The winner’s remix will be played. In the Bed-Stuy series, the BPhil isn’t just playing contemporary, but they are encouraging the creation of new from old, and the extraction of what is already new from the old. For the chamber concert in Bed-Stuy, the poet Tyehimba Jess will partner with the BPhil to present “Spirituals, Rags, and Strings in Brooklyn” with the music of Dvořák and H.T. Burleigh. The family workshop is titled “Emcee Me” (I need to sign up for this also…), and features the Readnex Poetry Squad for a workshop in hip hop and spoken word poetry.
                The players of the Brooklyn Philharmonic might not be decked out in Gaga-wear like violinist Hahn-Bin. They might not all be in their 20s like superstar Lang Lang. And no, they might not get their program out during the usual time that other orchestras do (though I doubt anyone actually cares). But they are certainly one of the most contemporary, full-sized orchestras that I know of in the US. Not only are they playing music by current composers like Sarah Kirkland Snider and David T. Little, but they are reaching out to the specific neighborhoods that they surround. Back in “the day,” whenever that exact day was, classical music was one of the most popular genres. All the bourgeois went to fancy premieres, and going to the opera or the symphony was the ultimate outing. Now, realistically, it is not like this. Symphonies around the world struggle with their budgets and audience attendance. Though it is unfortunate, the BPhil, I think, has a large chance of surviving with the route they are taking. Reaching out to the community, involving listeners in workshops, encouraging composition—this is what a truly modern ensemble has to do. If every city in the world had opportunities like the BPhil is offering, we might all be writing string quartets in our rooms at night. Or practicing slam poetry. 

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