This blogpost is originally published at New Music USA.
In September I was delighted to serve a short composer residency for New Music USA’s Music Alive: New Partnership program with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) of Houston, TX. I was especially happy to work with this newer orchestra, because it holds goals similar to my personal mission with CutTime®, to broaden the audience for classical music. I was even happier they chose to start by trying out my club format of chamber arrangements, compositions and info-tainment in a posh restaurant, a senior center and a famous downtown dive.
I was immediately surprised in first rehearsal by the high-level musicianship and versatility of their musicians. We were immediately kindred musical spirits and had a tremendous time showing that classical music didn’t always mean stuffy, slow, academic or church-like; that it can be fun, familiar and American, borrowing from blues, rock, Latin and even hip-hop traditions as my music sometimes does.
We used my string quartet configuration, supplemented by drummer and solo oboist to play real symphonies; such as excepts of Mozart #25 & 40, Beethoven #5 & 6 and Still #1 to Ellington’s MLK, Tchaikovsky Serenade Waltz, Joplin’s Entertainer to my works Pork ‘n Beans, City of Trees, Gigue Rondo and Mighty Love Serenade. Nearly half of these occasionally added some pop beat to form a bridge to new listeners. Some audience participated on eggshakers led by our charming drummer, Matt McClung.
As I came to experience Houston and Texas via the director (Alecia Lawyer), a host family, a musician and her husband, and an old friend from high school, I realized how horrible the streets were, how great the food and beer were, and how vital the city is. River Oaks, as a community, was rather exceptional: zoned primarily residential, well-to-do and non-diverse. While South Texas has a lot of oil money, rich universities and the best medical facilities in the world, many of their senior staff seem to live in here. This begins to explain how ROCO was able to develop such a high quality orchestra series in 10 years and why attracting a truly broad audience will remain a major challenge.
Two weeks later, I returned to Houston– following sojourns to Dallas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Austin and Beaumont—for rehearsals of my new orchestration of Gitcha Groove On!: a programmatic tale of a classical player going out on the town looking for a dance groove to fit his mood. Andres Cardenes was conducting. Being symphony orchestra veterans, we hit it off right from our meeting in Detroit 3 months earlier. Luckily for me, ROCO could not book either of their normal 1st chair bassists, so I was invited to play. While one might think it challenging to both play and listen as the composer for issues, I’ve been doing exactly this since 1994 in my own CutTime ensembles. We fixed some wrong notes, balances and tricky tempo and stylistic conversions to enjoy two really powerful performances in the church-venue and the outdoor theater.
While I had hoped to meet and talk at length to students in public schools and at Rice University (the timing was bad in September) and perhaps a few churches, overall I believe our collaboration went well. There wasn’t really enough funding for more chamber performances than we did. For my part, I needed to proof the score even more and perhaps more importantly, reach out to local schools and churches on my own to interest more in our concerts, and to share the good news that EVERYONE deserves classical music. Here’s more in an interview with Houston Chronicle [link].
The free outdoor concert at Miller Theater brought a fairly diverse audience and begged a burning question. I noticed about a dozen young African-Americans, people we most wanted to see at our concert, LEAVING after Gitcha Groove On!, during the amazing but long, and highly irregular Poulenc Sinfonietta. They missed out on the Moncayo Huapango, which they might’ve enjoyed. What does it mean if we can craft a program that is delightfully challenging for one audience but intolerable for another? Does it mean that we give up on the latter? We could only prepare one orchestra program. Was there an acceptable artistic element we could have added to act as a bridge? (dancer(s), spoken word, video projections?) I can imagine several things to try.
With New Classical, almost anything is fair game to try. In traditional concerts, almost nothing is fair game to try. I hope I might work again soon in Houston with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra and others, to plant more seeds for the classical revolution of art music that speaks immediately to the masses, brings us all together, and compels a few newbies to start enjoying traditional classical concerts.
Addendum: The double entendre of the title is not overlooked here, but rather saved for another blogpost. Am I willing to volunteer, or play classical as background in restaurants, or for low wages to experiment with what will bring new listeners into classical? Somebody’s gotta do it!