When Symphony Orchestras Meet Indie Rockers

UnknownIt’s quite common these days for orchestras to perform concerts in collaboration with indie rock performers. Classical music organizations consider these kinds of events to be a great way to bring in a younger crowd. For the rock musicians, performing with a symphony creates a certain caché.

It occurred to me not for the first time over the weekend while attending a Colorado Music Festival concert at the warm-sounding Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder that featured the singer-songwriter Joshua Radin, that these endeavors, though laudable, are probably more satisfying for the indie musician(s) involved than for the orchestral musicians. I’ve had the same feeling at previous events organized along similar lines, for example at a San Francisco Symphony concert a while back in which Rufus Wainwright performed his settings of Shakespeare sonnets at the piano, accompanied by the “house band.”

Radin, an attractive guy in his early 40s with a sweet, soulful voice and a gentle way of strumming a guitar, played a selection of his songs backed up by the orchestra. Some were more interesting than others. I loved the musician’s lyrical “Lullaby for Will” but was less enamored of a nurdling song about one night stands.

While Radin chatted with the audience about his life and artistic inspiration and played his music, the orchestra looked utterly bored. The basic issue was that the instrumentalists were underused. Trundling their way through unchallenging arrangements behind an indie rocker wasn’t inspiring to these top of the line musicians. It was the same thing at the San Francisco concert mentioned above.

I spoke with a member of the violin section the following evening — I was coincidentally at a dinner party with her. She verified my impression, adding that she had tried her best to look engaged but that it was hard work. She also said that a concert the orchestra had performed recently featuring arrangements of Radiohead songs was much more satisfying for her and her fellow musicians. I can believe it: Not only is Radiohead’s material much more musically complex than Radin’s sincere-simple songs, but the orchestra also got to play Brahms that night.

I’m not saying that orchestras shouldn’t continue to explore interesting collaborations with artists from contrasting walks of musical life. I’m just advocating for more fertile, ballsy music, intriguingly arranged to give the musicians something to chew on. Otherwise, what you end up with is essentially open mike night with a very expensive backup band.

PS It would be remiss of me not to mention the excellent “classically-trained garage band” Time for Three, who also performed with the Colorado Music Festival orchestra on Saturday evening. I couldn’t get enough of this group’s virtuosic sound and  dynamic energy. When the trio played, the members of the orchestra emerged from their lethargy and the audience went wild. I wish that the trio had performed a little more, and Radin — who appeared at Chautauqua as a “special guest” at Time for Three’s behest — a little less. The balance would have been more satisfying.

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  1. FCM says

    This article hits on an important point: it’s just very hard for ~100 musicians to be engaged in something, all at the same time. Classical composers do it pretty well. Nearly every part will have something interesting. (Unless the brass and lower strings are mucking there way through “footballs,” which happens)

    But popular forms of music tend to be smaller in scale, almost by a rule. This allows individual personalities to shine through. People like personalities. And the addition of an orchestra almost always means their contribution has to be homogenized in some way. Which instantly leads to boredom (as you would expect).

    Nobody calls bands “chamber ensembles”, but they are of that size.

    So symphonies face two challenges (yes…among…. many others….):
    1. Genre in and of itself
    2. The nearly inarguable fact that large ensembles are not popular ANYwhere outside of classical music!

    Personally, I find the fixed size of a symphony to be one of its greatest organizational weaknesses.

  2. Mark Francis says

    Ya know, we’re told as we grow up to be who we are and not worry about being popular. Maybe orchestras should think about this. Try telling people who you are; they might like you.

  3. says

    THANK YOU! for calling this out. I truthfully haven’t attended enough symphony concerts with these types of guest artists to form an educated opinion, because the little I’ve heard of indie rock bores me senseless. The same is true of “indie classical,” which is the exact same thing except classical instruments are tossed in as window dressing.

    I’m dismayed that orchestras are taking this approach now – it’s a variation on something they’ve tried before, with little to show for it. See this Atlantic article from 1997 (!) http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97aug/classic.htm

    Mark Francis nailed it: orchestras should be what they are, not play back up band to what they’re not!

  4. Taylor Burton says

    Interesting perspectives on these types of shows. I’ve always been a fan of these collaborations, but then again I’m a fan of both indie and classical (I work with the LA Phil). I think the concept behind is really wonderful- meshing two genres of music together into an exciting show for the audience, but I can certainly see if you’re not a fan of one of the genres it being difficult to get engaged in the performance. We’re actually doing two shows this week of Tchaikovsky Spectacular with Fireworks at The Hollywood Bowl, and I think these types of performances are a really great way to engage an audience: Family- friendly and visually spectacular to match the music. You can see more what I’m talking about here Hbowl.com/TchaikovskyFireworks. Either way I don’t think the orchestras are viewed as a back up band for the indie artist, but I could see how some people who aren’t already classical fans could get that impression.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      hi taylor
      thanks for your comments. I think that when these collaborations are done well they can be very engaging. but all too often the orchestra is given short shrift.