A group of people, many of them in their 20s, nursing drinks and chatting, lounged on rugs on the floor and benches around the perimeter of a long, dark bar. Four musicians came and sat on chairs in their midst, began playing Ravel and everyone listened. If you want to teach people how the music world is supposed to be, this is not a bad way to go about it.
The event, which happened last Thursday, represented the nexus of several initiatives. It was a concert under the umbrella of Groupmuse, an organization that has been midwifing the creation of living-room concerts and musical happenings since 2013, and has been responsible for more than 4,000 events throughout the country. It was hosted by MilkBoy ArtHouse, a performance space-cum-bar in College Park, a joint venture of the MilkBoy franchise in Philadelphia and the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, which for the past two years has hosted a range of shows and community events. And it was a component of the National Orchestral Institute and Festival (NOI), which every year convenes some of the best young instrumentalists in the nation at College Park for a month of rehearsals and performances under and with leading musicians.NOI helped create this group, the Adelphi Quartet, in 2017.
Preparing young musicians for a career in music looks different now than it did in 1988, when NOI began. A big part of instrumentalists’ training has always been learning to play orchestral excerpts as best they can, to land a job in an orchestra. But in today’s world, orchestra jobs are ever harder to come by, and orchestras are struggling with their identities, trying to figure out ways to become more diverse in their personnel and their programming. Institutions like NOI can play an active role in that kind of shift.
The Adelphi Quartet is an example: It was born of a 2017 fellowship that the Sphinx Organization, which is devoted to developing opportunities for musicians of color, gave the Peruvian-born cellist Marza Wilks. During her NOI residency, Wilks developed and founded a quartet comprised of musicians of color: “We want to make our voices heard and be visible to the world,” she said to the audience on Thursday night.
The Adelphi Quartet has returned to College Park every summer since, doing extensive outreach work in schools, as well as concerts like this one (another is scheduled for Thursday). Making their voices heard, in practice, involved playing Ravel and Beethoven with energy and flair, and also offering a work by the violinist-composer Jessie Montgomery, “Strum,” played with even more engagement, if possible. The evening, which included a couple of spoken poems by Jalen Eutsey, a writer and embedded journalist at this year’s NOI (another new initiative), ended with the last movement of Ginastera’s second quartet, for no better reason than that Wilks loves it, which proved, in the performance’s “Psycho”-like intensity, a very good reason indeed.
And if the main focus of NOI remains orchestra playing — there are five orchestral concerts on this year’s program, two of them in partnership with Wolf Trap Opera — even that is no longer such a straightforward proposition. Knowing Beethoven excerpts is not enough. In the past couple of years, NOI began a partnership with Naxos — the biggest recording label today of classical music — and last summer earned a Grammy nomination for its maiden recording of less-known American works.
On Saturday night, the NOI Philharmonic’s concert was also the recording session for a follow-up CD, also led by David Alan Miller, who is known for his innovative and largely American programming at the Albany Symphony. In trying to find works that Naxos wanted to record, that were right for NOI and that Miller wanted to play, NOI came up with an unusual and bracing program that included Walter Piston’s 5th Symphony and Gershwin’s Concerto in F in a performance that continued NOI’s emphasis on trying to clean Gershwin’s scores of the well-meaning “improvements” that some earlier musicians saw fit to make in them.
It made for an engaging evening. Piston’s music, now neglected, is a relic of a kind of wholesome mid-20th-century writing that nobody does anymore — far from any kind of avant-garde overtones, rich in tonality without being “neo” and enjoyable enough to hear. An even greater highlight, and far more formidable, was “Sequoia,” the first piece that Joan Tower, now a doyenne of American composers, wrote for orchestra in 1981. Tower was present and gave a few remarks to explain the intent of her piece, which set out to explore balances in music — timbres, tempos, dynamics — and which, she said, is “very busy” before apologizing to the orchestra for all the complex counting. It was busy indeed, and exciting and worth multiple hearings.
There followed a fox trot from John Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby,” perhaps the most ingratiating side of that thorny score: think new music meets big band, with the big band prevailing. And then came the Gershwin, the solo line energetic in the hands of pianist Kevin Cole, a Gershwin expert, and the orchestra lithe, limber and gorgeous in the hands of the young players who, year after year, reliably offer some of the best orchestral playing you can hear in the Washington area. All I can say is: Get the recording.
NOI continues with programs on Saturday (Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole,” among others) and June 29 (Mahler’s 5th).