“We have started a revolution in classical music,” the conductor James Blachly told the crowd. Behind him was a 70-piece orchestra. In front of him was a dance club. The venue was Dock 5, a nightclub at Union Market in the District, and the event was billed by Septime Webre’s Halcyon Stage as a “Stravinsky Rave: Rite of Spring Dance Party.”
All around the world, orchestras are eager to break out of their conventional trappings to reach new audiences. The Tonhalle orchestra in Zurich has a long-standing series called tonhalleLATE, with concerts starting at 10 p.m. followed by a dance party with DJs. Two years ago, the NSO played at Echostage, the District’s largest club. So why not offer a Stravinsky rave, let people dance, break out of the traditional classical music mold, and abolish the outmoded idea that people are supposed to listen to certain kinds of music in certain ways?
The only problem: Blachly’s “revolution” didn’t really allow for that kind of freedom.
That is, having gone to all the trouble of putting an orchestra (largely made up of New York-based music students and freelancers) in a club, and assembling a trendy-looking audience (largely, it seemed, people with some connection or other to the various presenting organizations), he didn’t actually want a rave atmosphere.
[NSO hits the club, and scores]
The conductor kept berating the audience for talking, took them to task for their cellphones (“we’re here to dance, not to take pictures”) and, at one point, actually stopped the music to try to force people to be quiet. Some in the audience tried to help, with cries of “It’s classical music!” and “Show some respect!” — which seems the opposite message to the one sent by playing Stravinsky in a club in the first place.
You could, of course, say it was appropriate to “The Rite of Spring,” which famously provoked a near-riot at its 1913 premiere, with supporters calling for silence and detractors booing and catcalling. Pierre Monteux, however, didn’t stop conducting to try to tell people how to receive his art.
Blachly’s “revolution,” to judge from the text on the website of his Experiential Orchestra, involves people being intoxicated by the brilliance of Stravinsky’s music and caught up in a frenzied bacchanal of spontaneous dancing. In fact, a number of people on Saturday did dance, doing their best with a score that’s known for its many starts and stops and changes of tempo.
“The Rite of Spring” was the grand finale of a program that started with a piece called “Scribbles and Riddles” by a young composer named Viet Cuong, which exposed some of the issues that the orchestra had in this particular space. Since they were playing at floor level, it was hard to see them unless you were right up close, and the quiet parts of the music were all but obscured by the ambient noise.
After a brief DJ interlude came two more pieces, which fared better, because both featured individual performers rather than a large group. The solo percussionist Peter Ferry played Nick Bonaccio’s “Variations on a Balkan Rhythm,” a lively piece for an array of drums that were easier to watch and, in a nightclub ambiance, apprehend. Then came the Sarabande from Bach’s second solo partita, played ardently by Henry Wang — and choreographed by Stuart Loungway into a pas de deux for the dancers Morgann Rose and Darion Flores. Dance at a dance club is not a huge leap: everyone stood in a circle and cheered lustily when it was over.
Stravinsky’s “Rite,” though, makes far more demands on its audience. And while Blachly exhorted his listeners to take their conversations outside, explaining, “This music will change your life if you let it,” he didn’t give them much context to go on. The performance was quite respectable, given the circumstances, but if you put music in a club, people will treat it like club music. I’m all for experimentation and new venues, but the kind of reaction Blachly evidently had in mind for this particular piece might have been easier to elicit in some kind of large room with seating where people could hear the music better. Like, I don’t know, a concert hall.