Taking Classical Music to Contemporary and Unusual Spaces

Mar 27, 2017

Over the years, many musicians have taken classical music into venues that seem a little out of character.

Cellist Zuill Bailey has performed more than once with Alaska's acclaimed Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Women’s Orchestra, formed in 2003. On HBO's Oz, Bailey played a cellist who was serving a jail sentence, meaning Bach could be heard throughout the cell block.

Another cellist, Matt Haimovitz, has played several unconventional venues. Same for Carpe Diem String Quartet—co-founder and violinist Charles Wetherbee often says, "If we want listeners to step into our world, we must be willing to step into theirs."

Such was the case when conductor James Blachly took the 70-piece Experiential Orchestra into Dock 5, a club in the historic Union Market district in Washington, D.C. He proclaimed they had started "a revolution in classical music," according to Classical music critic Anne Midgette, who attended the event and wrote about it for The Washington Post in The Classical Beat.

Experiential Orchestra
Credit experientialorchestra.com

Problem was, Blachly expected the crowd to stand quietly and listen to the music, rather than do what club crowds do—mingle, chat, tweet, post photos on Instagram and Snapchat and hear the music as part of the environment.

It was not well received.

I remember an event ProMusica Chamber Orchestra used to stage, called Prancing with ProMusica. It was held in an arena at the Ohio State Fairgrounds in conjunction with Equine Affaire, which offered, among other things, a horse and rider competition. The orchestra played while various types of horses performed—gaited horses, miniature horses, Clydesdales, Arabians and many others.

One piece featured a hunting theme, with riders in full hunting garb on their mounts, set to music by Johann Strauss. All went well until a truck full of beagles, tethered in pairs, pulled into the ring and released the hounds. They had apparently been cooped up a little too long. Several had to "do their business," which is tough when the other beagle is trying to run. Then there was the requisite sniffing and baying going on.

Needless to say, the audience loved it, laughing until they cried. And the orchestra never missed a beat during that memorable event.

ProMusica now offers the Naked Classics series, with a more casual approach to learning about and enjoying Classical music. Similarly, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra offers free Happy Hour concerts, presenting the orchestra and music in a more laid-back setting.

Along with supporting the CSO Happy Hour concerts as well as many of our local arts organizations, Jack and Zoe Johnstone are taking the music to the audience with their offerings of cutting-edge music in free concerts staged around Columbus.

It seems to me that, as arts organizations in general and orchestras in particular look for creative ways to expand their audiences, inviting people to a club setting then expecting them to behave as though they're in a concert hall is a bit of a bait and switch. Kudos to our local performers and presenters for experimenting with new and interesting ways to bring great music and music lovers together.