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The Post-Classical Ensemble, Storming the Ramparts

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 14, 2007

Listen closely to the average symphony orchestra, and you can almost hear it lumbering into extinction.

PCE_screen.jpgLarge-bodied, slow-moving and frighteningly expensive, classical music's most important institutions seem increasingly like relics of a distant age, kept alive by an audience that gets grayer every year. Most younger listeners are oblivious -- they give classical music the same respect they hold for the periwig and pince-nez -- but few orchestras are doing much to draw them in, huddling around formulas that haven't worked for years: formal concerts, disdain for contemporary culture and a numbing attachment to the music of 19th-century Germany.

"There's a need for fundamental change -- the format and the repertoire of the concert needs to be completely rethought," says Joseph Horowitz, author of the groundbreaking book "Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall." Conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez agrees: "We cannot do music in the same way, because humanity has changed."

But Horowitz and Gil-Ordonez aren't just criticizing -- they're charging the ramparts. Four years ago they launched an unusual D.C.-based group called the Post-Classical Ensemble as a sort of working laboratory for new ideas. And they've turned the traditional model on its head: Unlike traditional orchestras, the ensemble has no fixed size (it's made up of freelancers hired for specific programs), no fixed home (it's played everywhere from the Library of Congress to Strathmore), a minuscule budget and complete freedom to take risks.

Joseph Horowitz
The bold approach is part of a wider movement to shake the classical world out of its torpor and to drag it -- kicking and screaming, if necessary -- into the 21st century. Innovative groups such as Cleveland's Red {an orchestra} and New York's Wordless Music-- which pairs rock and classical performers together onstage -- are using flexible ensembles and uninhibited approaches to both music and performance. They're throwing out staid conventions and dated repertoire -- even the term "classical" itself -- and reinventing the classical concert from the ground up.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, for instance, has brought life-size puppets to the Kennedy Center, juxtaposed Mexican folk songs with edgy new orchestral works and even shared the stage with a gypsy band from Budapest. And the ensemble's fifth season -- which opens this afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center with a live performance of Aaron Copland's score for the 1939 documentary "The City" -- is just as unconventional. There's a program on the first African American opera company in the United States (complete with the operetta performed), a concert devoted to the brilliant, little-known Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and a provocative look at how exile in the United States affected the immigrant composers Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg.

But it isn't just eclecticism for its own sake. Each Post-Classical Ensemble performance focuses on a single idea -- often a single piece of music -- then explores it by drawing freely on film, theater, dance, poetry or anything else to provide context or insight. If, for example, it's illuminating to pair Mahler's "The Song of the Earth" with traditional Chinese pipa music and a contemporary work from a Chinese American composer (which, remarkably enough, it is), then the ensemble will do it.

"It's a broader exercise than just presenting music in live performance," says Horowitz. "We insist on moving outside the parameters of classical music."

The result: unpredictable, idea-rich concerts designed to challenge the audience. And, while the ensemble is still well off the beaten path, audiences are starting to grow -- and they're as diverse, says Horowitz, as the music itself.

A longtime music critic, Horowitz, 59, honed his ideas while serving as executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s, where he was tasked with halting a precipitous drop in attendance. He threw out the old subscription template, developed themed, interdisciplinary concerts, got rid of celebrity performers -- and turned the group around in just a few seasons.

Gil-Ordonez.jpgWhile Horowitz takes an analytical approach to the crisis (he's written eight books on music and tends to speak in long, perfectly manicured paragraphs), Gil-Ordonez, 50, addresses it almost physically. A conductor who spent many years with the National Symphony Orchestra of Spain, he's a kinetic performer onstage, using his entire body to guide the ensemble, and his conversation is just as animated. Ask him a question and 20 ideas spill out in a headlong rush -- illustrated with shouts, snippets of song, dramatic whispers and the occasional groan, all inflamed with revolutionary passion.

And almost everything about the classical world lights his fuse -- particularly the isolation of the concert hall and the stuffy, outdated rituals. "Everything is so artificial!" he says, clenching his fists in frustration. "The performers in black: 'Okay, we will allow you, the audience, to be here.' The person who says 'shhhh!' if you want to applaud between movements. Really -- why would you want to go to that?"

Instead, he says, classical music needs to recover the freewheeling atmosphere it had before it became, well, classical.

"When you went to a concert 200 years ago, it was the event of the week. You were there to meet your friends, to talk -- even during performances! At the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth, people jumped up shouting in the second movement: aarrgghhhh! Like Mick Jagger!  And this is the key: We have to recover this sense of spontaneity. I am still hoping somebody in the audience will just sing aloud some of the music while I'm conducting."

But the primary focus, both he and Horowitz agree, is moving beyond the mainstream repertoire.

"I use the term 'post-classical' to identify what's going on at the borders, whether it's the border between China and the U.S., or gamelan and the symphonic orchestra, or West African drumming and jazz," says Horowitz. "And the most interesting composers -- people like Zhou Long, Lou Harrison and Steve Reich -- are all post-classical."

The strategy makes sense -- because modern audiences are post-classical, too. Raised on a global diet of music -- everything from salsa to grunge rock to Japanese gagaku -- younger listeners can hardly be blamed for finding the traditional European repertoire narrow and oppressively Dead-White-Male-ish.  But that doesn't mean they're not interested in serious music; they just want it performed for 21st-century ears.

"One failing in the classical world is not really understanding the audience," says critic Greg Sandow, who teaches a course at Juilliard on the future of music.

"Maybe the most important thing now is a real knowledge of pop culture and the world in which your music is going to be received. People who watch 'The Sopranos' -- as I do! -- are going to be a little restless listening to 'Tosca,' " he says, laughing.

In the end, say many observers, the classical world may have no choice but to change. Bureaucracy-heavy institutions like the National Symphony Orchestra (with its $29 million budget) are competing for the next generation against more adventurous groups like the Post-Classical Ensemble -- whose lean, $400,000 annual operation gives it the flexibility to take risks.

"Symphony orchestras," Gil-Ordonez says flatly, "are going to disappear."

Sandow won't go that far, but pronounces the situation "fairly dire," since the age of the mainstream classical audience has been rising for 50 years, while ticket sales have been dropping for the past 20.

"Orchestras are finding it very restricting to keep 80 musicians under contract for 52 weeks, and that model is not really sustainable, " he says. "The future may belong to smaller, more nimble organizations. We're still learning what works."


For more on the Post-Classical Ensemble and its current season, click here.

To watch Angel Gil-Ordonez talking about music on The Washington Post's website, click here.

For more information on Joseph Horowitz, click here.


Posted on Tuesday, October 16, 2007 at 12:31PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments3 Comments

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Reader Comments (3)

Your article on the Post Classical orchestra
is with all due respect,very unfair.It totally
misrepresents our mainstream orchestras,making
them appear like stodgy,hidebound institutions.
In fact,they have performed numerous new works in recent years by a wide variety of contemporary
composers.The notion that they are hopelessly stuck in the past is a myth.And they do not only
play music by"dead white european males"
Women composers are currently being played more often than ever before,and one can hear
music by Americans,Latin Americans and Asians.
I have no objection to the alternative orchestra
you profile,but it is grossly unfair to make
it sound as though only alternative groups are
worth hearing.
October 17, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterrobert berger
Hi Robert -- sure, some orchestras are grappling with the issues of aging audiences and declining ticket sales. And no one's quite sure what to do, hence all these new groups trying different approaches. But that's a good thing -- it's important that everyone who loves serious music look critically at the current orchestral model and discuss how to make it better. Pretending that everything is ok is just prolonging the problem.

And while it's true that there are some adventurous orchestras out there (Marin Alsop's new reign at the BSO is particularly exciting), most of them sure seem like "stodgy, hidebound institutions." Look at the National Symphony Orchestra's 2007-2008 season. There are precisely four pieces -- four! -- written in the last fifty years, and almost nothing genuinely current. Yet there are entire programs given over to Beethoven, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and other -- ahem -- dead white European males.

Aside from a wonderful piece by the 33-year-old Jefferson Friedman that the NSO performed a few weeks ago, where are the dynamic young composers? Studiously ignored by the NSO, that's for sure. In DC, at least, you have to go to small ensembles to hear what's really going on in music now.
October 19, 2007 | Registered CommenterStephen Brookes
I did not say that everything is "okay" with
our mainstream orchestras.But the fact remains
that they have collectively played a lot more
new music in recent years than your article
indicates.Here are some orchestras that have
done thisThomas/San Francisco,Salonen/L.A.,
Robertson/StLouis,Detroit/Jarvi,Paavo Jarvi/
Cincinnati,Levine/Boston.And in addition,many
interesting rarities from the past have been revived.There are certain works you would never
heard say,50 years ago that are now part of the
repertoire.There is greater diversity in
programming than ever before.So what if music
by Mozart,Beethoven,Brahms,Tchaikovsky etc are
still played?And since when is this music "dated"? Are Shakespeare,Michelangelo,Dostoyevsky,Shaw etc
"dated"? I think not.And there are still vast numbers of people,young and not so young who do not know the great music of the past at all.
If we could just open their minds and get them to come to concerts,they would love it.
October 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterrobert berger

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