The PostClassical Ensemble announced Friday that after 14 itinerant seasons, it has found a stable home — at Washington National Cathedral. Starting next season, it will become the cathedral’s newest ensemble-in-residence.
This means that the ensemble, which calls itself “an experimental orchestral laboratory” and has performed in venues from the Indonesian Embassy to the Library of Congress, will present three of next season’s concerts at the cathedral, two of them in collaboration with the cathedral’s chorus. It will continue to perform in other locations around Washington as well.
The move also signals the cathedral’s desire to expand its footprint in the Washington arts scene.
The residency will officially begin with a commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7 featuring musical responses to World War II by Hans Eisler, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg.
This new relationship was spurred by the PostClassical Ensemble’s February concert “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” an exploration of spirituals, presented at the cathedral with bass-baritone Kevin Deas and trumpeter Chris Gekker.
“It would have had half the impact or less if we had done it in a concert hall,” said Joseph Horowitz, who co-founded the PostClassical Ensemble with Angel Gil-Ordóñez in 2003. “We discovered — all of us, including the audience, which was huge and interracial — that the cathedral was a singular ambiance for presenting music in live performance.”
Michael McCarthy, the cathedral’s music director, had already worked with the PostClassical Ensemble on several earlier concerts.
“I loved their approach: a laboratory,” McCarthy said. “Music is being presented sometimes in conventional form but in unconventional ways. I found the juxtaposition of that and the cathedral, in terms of what the cathedral can do in terms of bringing people to it, very compelling.”
He added: “I have a vision for what the cathedral should be doing in terms of arts presenting. We present concerts, yes, but I think the building has more latitude to be able to bring programming here which is not just two-dimensional but multidimensional.”
The large, echoing cathedral and the scrappy ensemble are an unlikely fit at first glance. But both Horowitz and Gil-Ordóñez waxed enthusiastic about what McCarthy has shown them about the building’s possibilities. “Mike has wonderful ideas about the space that we can embrace,” said Gil-Ordóñez, citing the choir, the crypt and various areas of the nave as potential performance spaces, as well as exhibition and conference areas where they could host auxiliary events.
One model is the Park Avenue Armory in New York, a venue for cutting-edge performances in every imaginable configuration. “We have a similar opportunity,” Horowitz said, “although the cathedral of course has a much more specific ambiance.”
As for the acoustical challenges of the echoing space, which make a full orchestra sound muddy in symphonic music, both men say it has proved an unexpectedly good fit for their smaller-scale chamber orchestra performances — thanks not least to its sophisticated sound system. “From the perspective of the conductor,” Gil-Ordóñez said, “conducting there is one of the most beautiful acoustics in the whole area. I was completely surprised by that.”
“One of the other things that attracts us,” he said, “is the variety of the audience we are going to be able to attract.”
The PostClassical Ensemble joins the cathedral’s string-quartet-in-residence, the Diderot Quartet. These secular groups reflect McCarthy’s vision of a cathedral that embraces a civic as well as a religious role and reflects a wider range of cultural traditions — a vision he is starting to pursue more actively as the cathedral emerges from its prolonged financial struggles and, he says, “the shoots of recovery are clearly above the ground.”
“Cathedrals were the center of their community,” he said, speaking of the time when these massive Gothic buildings were first erected. “The discourse that was happening wasn’t all about the church. Civic engagement happened. That’s what I see as the cathedral music program: not a challenge to the Kennedy Center or Strathmore, but finding partners who look at the space and don’t say, ‘What am I supposed to do here?’ ”
This describes the PostClassical Ensemble well. “We’ve never done art for art’s sake,” Horowitz said. “All our programming is thematic. Most of it is about music as an instrument for mutual understanding and human betterment.”
“This is the first time we’ve found a plausible home in D.C.,” he added. “We’ve looked sporadically. There are times we haven’t looked, and thought we’d just be itinerant. And there were times we have looked, and nothing seemed quite right. But this is going to work. We all understand this is the right marriage.”
The PostClassical Ensemble will present “Music in Wartime: A Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration” on Dec. 7, a reprise of “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual” (which it co-presented with Washington Performing Arts in 2015) on Feb. 28 and “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case” on May 23.