Last week, I attended the National Orchestral Institute's "New Lights" concert at the University of Maryland. The concert featured works by Bach, Cage, Pärt, and Moravec, as well as improvisational interludes—improvisations that were performed both by the performers and by the audience members. The concert was seamless with each piece fading into the next and ran for a manageable 45-minute stretch. It was, without a doubt, one of the most effective ways of freshening up programming that I've witnessed in a long time.
At first, I have to admit, I was skeptical of the whole thing. When the program indicated that there would be two opportunities for improvised audience participation, I was bracing myself for all kinds of awkwardness. Improvising can be fun, but it can also be downright terrifying if you aren't a musician, don't do it on a regular basis, aren't sure how to participate, or are just generally unsure of the "rules."
What actually transpired, however, really worked. The NOI participants began the concert with a clapping, rhythmic "flash mob" that mimicked the rhythms of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which was next on the program. Since many members were sitting in the audience, as well, it became clear that we should feel free to join in with our own interpretations of the rhythms. The energy was infectious and I found myself clapping along and experimenting with different patterns. Then, on cue, the rhythms morphed into a spirited rendition of the Brandenburg. Later in the program, between Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel and Moravec's Brandenburg Gate, we were able to vocalize an improvised texture, without worrying about pitch, duration, rhythm, etc.
This all may sound a little new-age-y, but because of being able to participate in an extremely relaxed manner from the beginning, I felt more relaxed at this concert than I ever do at classical music concerts. Not only was I more relaxed, but I was also more focused on the music itself and more open-minded about my listening.
For example, if I had been at a typical classical music concert, I don't think I would have enjoyed Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel, largely because its harmonic simplicity is not really my cup of tea at the moment. But I wonder how much of my judgment of music is typically heightened in the traditional concert hall by classical music's ingrained, stiff cultural environment of judging and critiquing. In this concert, I found myself considering the Pärt for what it was, without feeling as much need to pass judgment—I didn't have to worry about how enthusiastically to clap afterward, for example, as there was no space for clapping until the end of the concert.
Not only was this concert innovative, but it was also solidly performed. The music itself was of an extremely high quality and the energy level was engaging. However, it was clear that the attempt to engage the audience with new music in particular had left a tangible impression. At the end of the concert, when the organizer opened things up for questions and comments, a woman raised her hand to praise the performance for its inclusiveness and energy. She expressed excitement about being able to engage and vocalize with the group. And she added that even as an "older person" she very much wants more concerts like these. Of course, this is only one person's opinion, but her comment received much applause, which would suggest that her statement really hit home.
This raises a lot of important ideas and questions for all of us in what we can do to keep classical programming fresh, exciting, and alive.
Posted by Natalie