The Post-Classical: No Coats, Ties or Stuffed Shirts

The Post-Classical Ensemble, which will play Aaron Copland's score for the 1939 film
The Post-Classical Ensemble, which will play Aaron Copland's score for the 1939 film "The City" today at the Clarice Smith Center, has no fixed address or roster of musicians, hiring freelancers as needed per performance. (Photos By Tom Wolff)
By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 14, 2007

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

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. Post-Classical is still well off the beaten path, but 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.

While Horowitz takes an analytical approach to the topic (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. His conversation is just as animated. Ask him a question and 20 ideas spill out in a headlong rush -- illustrated with shouts, snippets of a song, dramatic whispers and the occasional groan, all inflamed with revolutionary passion.

Almost everything about the classical world lights his fuse: the isolation of the concert hall, 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!

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company