Third Angle New Music Studio Series preview: Musical Tapas

New contemporary classical series goes shorter, cheaper, tighter.

More often than we used to, we read news in bite- (or byte-) sized amounts. We sample creative food choices in small portions rather than elaborate, three-course meals. At Portland’s Time-Based Arts Festival, the shows generally run an hour or so, giving us time to catch the next one. Even that paragon of large-scale fiction, David Mitchell, recently issued a short (though apparently not short enough for 21st century eyes) story in Twitter’s 140-character nibbles. Everywhere, it seems, as the world speeds up, attention spans shrink —  especially when it comes to trying new things.

Everywhere, that is, except in classical music, which as in so many ways, still lives the dream of the 1890s. Most classical concerts are two-plus hour affairs, often following the standard overture-concerto-intermission-symphony formula. Operas are longer, chamber music concerts sometimes shorter, but too often, they’re still endurance contests, suffering from inadequate rehearsal of too much material. Maybe that’s acceptable if you’re offering familiar fare, whether in a classical concert or, say, a Bruce Springsteen marathon, but what if you’re jonesing to try something new? No one wants to pay a day’s wage (especially considering parking, babysitting and other associated costs) and fidget through an entire evening of sounds they may wind up loathing. The standard classical concert formula discourages artistic experimentation by both performers and listeners.

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays music by John Zorn, Philip Glass and Livengood.

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays music by John Zorn, Philip Glass and Kerrith Livengood.

Enter one of Oregon’s most adventurous music institutions, Third Angle New Music. This Thursday and Friday marks the debut of its innovative Studio Series, which this season offers five, hour-long, no-intermission shows at Portland’s wonderfully intimate arts/community hub, Zoomtopia. (Read my Willamette Week preview.) Best known for its dance performances, the studio, which features flexible bleacher-style and floor seating, also invites musical and other innovation by sundering the barriers between audience and action. It’s an ideal setting to sample unfamiliar fare in a relaxed, low-risk environment.

Smaller Portions

“I love classical music, but half the time at any given concert, at intermission, I’m done. I don’t want to eat so late. I want to go see something else. Why don’t you let me leave without feeling guilty?”

That’s one of Oregon’s most respected classical musicians, Oregon Symphony violinist (for a quarter-century!) and Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, who embraced the notion of shorter shows because of his own admitted attention deficit. But old habits can be hard to shake.

“Tradition in classical music changes more slowly than the Catholic Church,” Blessinger sighs. “There’s this expectation of that you pay a certain amount of money and you’ll come and be there for two hours. The idea that we would only make people sit for an hour as opposed to two hours made people anxious. Meanwhile other musical forms moved on, like the 45-minute sets at a jazz club. The rest of the musical world is showing us the way.”

Jazz actually helped inspire the strategy, which came from a Third Angle board member, the esteemed Portland restaurateur (Nel Centro, Lauro, Vindhalo, South Park) David Machado, who also serves the music community on the board of the Portland Jazz Festival. He told Blessinger that PJF had enjoyed success with shorter shows featuring smaller ensembles for audiences of about 100. “People knew they could go and get just a little booster shot of music,” Blessinger explains, so he decided to try the concept with contemporary classical music.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that an innovative restaurateur came up with the idea. “It’s designed to be like ‘musical tapas,’” Blessinger says, with “bite-sized portions. We’re seeing a shift towards small portions in a lot of cultural respects: food, movies, TV (we change the channel frequently)…. You don’t often come across pieces epic in length anymore. Everything seems to be shrinking, with more variety in smaller bites. We’ve left that type of immensity behind in classical music, too, with some exceptions. With shorter attention spans, we have to grab people’s attention for shorter amounts of time.”

Blessinger acknowledges that there’s always a place for larger scale works whose bigger themes need more time and space for development. But for this series, Third Angle sought programming appropriate to the size and scale of the venue. And the smaller portions offered some larger advantages to the ensemble’s three-decade long tradition of presenting innovative music. “We were inspired by the theme of introducing new voices,” he says. “[The Studio Series] allows us to present them as a series of new works and gives us a chance to do more of them.”

Practical Advantages

And play them better. Lack of rehearsal has hamstrung too many too-long new (and old, for that matter) music concerts in Oregon. The series “gives us a chance to focus on a single piece more intensely rather than three pieces,” says Blessinger, who calls the major work on the first Studio concert, John Zorn’s wild string quartet Alchemy, “the most difficult I’ve ever played. We paired it with Glass’s third quartet, which is much simpler. Without having to learn, practice, and rehearse another major composition (as on a typical concert), “we will give the Zorn an excellent reading because we can really focus on that,” he explains. The concert also includes the world premiere of  Online Communion, one of those untried works by an unfamiliar emerging composer, Kerrith Livengood (commissioned as part of the group’s laudable 2014 New Ideas in Music Competition) — the sort of unfamiliar fare that might discourage listeners from paying too much or staying too long to try.

The series also brings economic advantages. “In years past, we had five large scale performances,” Blessinger says. “And because they’re costly and large in scale, the pressure was on to have them in larger, 500-seat venues for a single performance.” With higher stakes, “the pressure is on to have everything come together perfectly. So if you have a snow storm (as Third Angle did last February), you’re screwed. Your liability is concentrated on five nights.”

With the Studio Series, though, “we have to prepare half as much music, so that reduces production costs,” and so does the intimacy of the venue, which reduces lighting and staging expenses, and “allowed us to keep it simpler and still be effective,” Blessinger says. “Zoomtopia is the right size — 100 seats — the lighting and audio systems are good. It’s flexible and a nice-sounding room. The real question for us was acoustics: how is it going to sound?” They gave it a try and found the acoustic environment “warm and inviting. Percussion, string, brass — it was not overbearing at all. It’s basically a box that’s available for different configurations. I like giving context to music using video and that’s available too,” Blessinger says.

Audience Appeal

The new series offers audiences at least as much as it does its perpetrators. The principal advantage: more choices. With a few exceptions, Third Angle’s has typically performed each program only once (thanks in part to those production costs and scale) in a four or five-show season. This year’s Studio Series offers a total ten studio concerts (two of each program). Add that to the group’s “regular” three full-length concerts (although the first lasted only an hour but drew what looked to be a bigger audience than the 200 that would have fit in two Studio concerts), and listeners have thirteen chances (instead of five) to hear Third Angle, and a wider variety of music, better performed. Blessinger ticks off the advantages: “We have more seats to sell, more opportunities for people to choose what they want, it reduces our production costs, and increases our chance to make money.”

Even though the series doesn’t start till Thursday, Third Angle’s core audience seems to appreciate the new value proposition. According to Blessinger, ticket sales and subscriptions are up over last year (half the Zoomtopia seats were sold out to subscribers a month ago) and of the three season ticket options — studio series only, regular concert series, and both — “by far the most subscriptions are for everything,” Blessinger says. “We have more options for people — subscribe to everything or parts of everything — so they’re more inclined to subscribe. So far, there’s not a single complaint either about the price or format. We’re excited; thus far, it’s working out the way we planned.”

But while the group’s long time listeners like it, will the series bring new ones? It’s encouraging to see audiences respond positively to a classical music institution that can think outside the big box, but I still wonder whether the ticket prices are too high to really draw an audience beyond the core listeners who already know they like contemporary music or at least enjoy the thrill of unpredictability and discovery enough (and trust Third Angle enough) to give it a try. “It’s the same price as any other equivalent entertainment option for an hour,” Blessinger says. “You’re not going to have a meal for less than $20 if you go out to eat.”

The issue of ticket prices in classical music transcends this series and this story, but lower ticket prices, smaller venues, shorter shows … none alone will bring sufficient new audiences needed to sustain forward-looking music making. Audience building also involves targeted marketing and other means of reaching potential listeners who may not be aware of even the omnipresent Philip Glass. But it’s unrealistic to expect a single new initiative to solve every long-festering problem suffered by classical music. Third Angle deserves kudos and support for removing a couple of the major locks on the door into the previously exclusive new music sanctum of the already insular classical music club. Along with other efforts, Third Angle’s Studio Series extends Oregon’s efforts to bring a wider audience to classical music, and vice versa. “Just like music itself,” Blessinger says, “the concert format is just as worthy of re-examination.”

Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series opens Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Zoomtopia Studios, 810 SE Belmont. Tickets available online.

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7 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Well, now that I’ve taken early social security & live in a low-income bldg. in the “Dirty Pearl,” my idea of a meal out is Jake’s Crawfish Grill Happy Hour burger, fries & ginger ale for $8.74 (including 20% tip).

    $20 dinner out?

    $25 ticket for a short concert?
    Not part of my current happy musical meal plan.


  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    “It’s the same price as any other equivalent entertainment option for an hour,” Blessinger says.

    The wiggle word there, of course, is “equivalent”.

    I’m on the board of Cascadia Composers, which for many years has charged $20 for a full two-hour concert and has lately done almost as well with a $10 suggested donation, so I can’t be any more objective about the issue than Blessinger can, but there is one objective fact: Third Angle’s ticket prices, measured in dollars per minutes of music, are far above any other new (classical) music offering in town. Fortunately, the quality of their performances is generally very high, but whether it’s high enough to justify that kind of surcharge is an open question. No doubt, as long as more and more people keep walking in the door, there’s no reason to be unhappy with the answer.

  3. I’m grateful to Bob for bringing this issue to the fore. As we’ve written here before, it’s one of THE most important subjects in Oregon arts — not just classical music — and we at ArtsWatch want to elevate and broaden the public discussion as much as possible. I’m not sure this post’s comments will reach enough readers and arts folks to continue it here, so we ArtsWatchers are going to huddle up and figure out how best to continue — public meeting? a separate post — or a week of them? — on our home page? If you have ideas for such a conversation, please send them to us via the contact button on ArtsWatch’s home page, and we will try to get back to this critical topic in a more visible fashion soon. ArtsWatch readers are some of the most thoughtful and informed about the arts around, and we need your wisdom — but we also need to extend the discussion beyond the current arts crowd and involve precisely the kinds of folks who aren’t typically part of these conversations, because we’re all trying to bring them to Oregon arts, too. Thanks all!

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