Summer music survey part 4: Younger Than Yesterday

Oregon Symphony brings music from today's pop musicians to the concert hall.

Over the past week, we’ve been reviewing summer concerts that sparkled with the promise of renewal. Some of them involved young — even very young! — musicians. But even some of the state’s old-line classical institutions are beginning to seek new audiences. The Oregon Symphony, like other American orchestras, has for the last few years been updating the old idea of the pops concert, once reserved for the Lawrence Welk crowd. Now it’s the baby boomers instead of the 1940s and ‘50s generations whose pop music invades orchestra programs. Often, these have amounted to little but bloated, simplistic inflations of rock band hits for orchestras, but in the last weeks of the summer, the Oregon Symphony presented three different concerts featuring not just the hits but also original music written for orchestra by musicians who made their reputations in non classical settings. (The orchestra also brought back pop singer Brandi Carlile, but that concert announcement didn’t include original works for orchestra.)

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Unfortunately, I missed OSO’s performance of Phish head Trey Anastasio’s Petrichor (which refers to the scent produced after the first rain in a long time); by all accounts, the audience gave the piece, and the orchestra, fervent shouting ovations. We’ll have more to say about Ben Folds’s surprising early September show soon, but for now, I’ll just note that the feisty third movement of his piano concerto deserves more performances, and not just featuring the composer, who I hope will continue to explore composing for “classical” forces.

At that concert and the preceding week’s Bela Fleck’s guest appearance, the audience seemed to average a full generation younger than usual at the OSO; we’ve asked the symphony to provide us whatever demographic and attendance information it can at the end of the season, but the applause between movements of the banjo virtuoso’s concerto suggested that many were new to the preposterous rituals of classical music. The musicians got into the spirit by shucking the tuxes in favor of what we called “new music black” back in the day — informal black tops and bottoms.

All, that is, except for music director Carlos Kalmar, who strode to the podium resplendent in a blindingly pink shirt that threatened to spontaneously combust, and launched the orchestra into an equally flammable performance of everyone’s favorite (next to maybe Mozart’s Figaro) overture, the stirring kickoff Leonard Bernstein wrote for his operetta Candide, which deserved the raucous woo-hoos and claps it elicited from a crowd (including a dude in a ten gallon hat — first time I’ve seen one of those at an Oregon Symphony concert) that was probably there to hear Bela. The rollicking overture and the rest of the program was brilliantly designed to show any symphony novices the melodic and rhythmic power of some of the best American music, and to place Fleck’s orchestral works in that tradition. The orchestra was smokin’, the house was rockin’, the audience was cheering …


… And then everything stopped. Kalmar walked off stage, stagehands scurried on to haul out a chair for Fleck, musicians rearranged themselves — it took only a few minutes (everyone moved with quick efficiency), but that was enough to drain the accumulated energy. Except for a couple of half-hearted “yeah”s, you could just feel all goodwill dissipate. Imagine how different it would have felt if the orchestra had planned to put all the performers for the first two pieces onstage from the get-go, and if, amid all the applause for the overture, Kalmar, instead of exiting stage right, had instead immediately turned to the audience and bellowed “Thank you! Please welcome Bela Fleck!!” and the man they’d come to hear had strode in, sat down, and started playing. The tide of momentum would have carried right through the whole first half. Then, after Fleck’s first piece, they could have paused and spoken to the audience to cover any necessary re-setting, or just waited till intermission. Admittedly, I don’t know how difficult this would have been to pull off, but I sure wish orchestras would think harder about how the audience experiences concerts and plan accordingly. They’re getting closer, but this missed opportunity suggests they’re not all the way there yet.

Conductors aren’t the only classical musicians who could stand a dose of theatrical thinking. A much anticipated recital by Brooklyn new music pianist Kathleen Supove was undermined from the start by a polite introduction from the presenter, then a polite thank you from the supposed star, and a talk about the music she was about to play, before she finally sat down at the instrument and signaled the start of a pre-recorded track (Jacob TV’s “Body of Your Dreams”) … finally joining in after a few measures of vocal samples. By then, the anticipatory energy had evaporated.

How much stronger it would have felt had it started this way instead: the lights go down, the prerecorded track starts playing — and then Supove strides boldly to the bench and starts playing as the lights go up. THAT would have kicked up the energy. Her disappointing recital never recovered.

The next week, a more charismatic New York star, the glamorous Maya Beiser, roared her concert off to a start with a drum-propelled blast of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” played on electric cello — then squandered minutes switching to an acoustic instrument (it takes a lot longer to change cellos than guitars), letting more built-up energy escape by chatting with the audience. Her semi-successful show would have worked much better with all-electric and all-acoustic sets, reducing the instrument switching to twice at most.

Fleck and Kalmar consult the score during rehearsal.

Fleck and Kalmar consult the score during rehearsal.

As for Fleck’s music, his 2011 Impostor concerto started softly, then upped the ante with percussion and string blasts alternating with fingerpicked banjo solos. As with many guitar concertos, Fleck’s banjo lines tended to run in the spaces between orchestral swells, and (as in plenty of other concertos of any kind) it included a little too much extended noodling over relatively simple chords, and a virtuosic cadenza that stole the spotlight. The concerto felt more tentative than his less ambitious follow-up, Big Country, an arrangement (by guitarist, composer and University of Oregon alum Kyle Sanna) of a 1998 Flecktones piece that didn’t stray far from his non-orchestral sound but worked pretty well when the orchestra wasn’t covering his solos. Even amplified, plucked instruments can encounter rough sailing when the orchestral tides rise. Still, both pieces fully merited the enthusiastic response they drew from the fans, as did Fleck’s solo encore, a dizzy version of the theme to a famous boomer-era TV show set in a hilly West Los Angeles community, which meandered through various detours and reharmonizations, punctuated by Fleck’s playful mugging and grinning.

Happily, most of his fans stuck around (although neither Fleck nor, alas, the day-glow conductor attire remained) for the second half, which kicked off with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s exuberant  Danse Negre and concluded with music from George Gershwin’s great American opera, Porgy and Bess, played with the orchestra’s by now usual panache and crispness. (One audience member guffawed when a banjo player — not Fleck — took the little solo in Gershwin’s score.) It almost made me a little verklempt, seeing so many (probable) OSO newbies so surprised (judging but the conversations I eavesdropped on during intermission and after the show) at how much they’d enjoyed the un-Flecked parts of the concert. When persuasively played and properly programmed like this, American classical music can move almost anyone who loves music.

Not Your Grandpop’s Pops Concert

As  in any experimental series, some results of these pop star crossovers will be inconclusive, many will fail, maybe some will succeed… but tapping the talents of non classical composers for orchestral music is one plausible way for the institution to renew itself, as long as those experiments don’t come at the expense of commissioning and performing — on every concert — music by today’s and tomorrow’s American composers who actually do create orchestral music in the classical music tradition. Oregon orchestras, like most of those in the US, have failed to do nearly enough of that, but orchestras like Nashville’s (where Folds and Fleck’s concertos originated), Seattle’s, and Los Angeles’s, among others, have begun to shown the way.

According to orchestra-watcher Greg Sandow, what studies exist seem to suggest that fans who turn up for these pops shows don’t tend to come back for the orchestra’s stale regular menu — and why should they? They’re not the same thing. I hope that will change over time, as ambitious or just restless pop musicians explore orchestral writing, but even if it doesn’t, there’s something to be said for the orchestra giving these fans a great show, and showing them the concert hall doesn’t have to be a scary or stuffy place, whether or not they return. But after hearing the greatest American music played so brilliantly by an indisputably great American orchestra, I bet some of those who attended the Fleck concert will do just that.

Despite some shortcomings, these Oregon Symphony shows, together with the other summer concerts described in this series, left me feeling almost optimistic about the future of classical music, thanks not only to the young players and composers, but also the restless older ones who seem willing to at least try different approaches to rejuvenate the music. In the previous installment of this series, I mentioned a performance by the great ’60s rock band, the Byrds, from another era of musical renewal. As I left Schnitzer Concert Hall with the other gratified listeners, recalling all the youthful energy I’d seen there and in audiences and on stages this summer, I thought about that old Bob Dylan song that the Byrds sang all those years ago on their Younger than Yesterday album, the one about being so much older then, but younger than that now.

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