The Main Street Sessions

For a long time, I’ve thought that the classical music world needs to embrace other kinds of music. Why? At first the idea might not make sense to some people. We don’t ask reggae stars to acknowledge country music; we’d be surprised if Wynton Marsalis went on TV with Bjork.

So why should classical musicians (and classical music institutions) reach out to any other musical style?

Well, there are many reasons. (And as I’m writing this, I’m playing the hot new Bruce Springsteen album. He sings Pete Seeger songs live, with a large crew of musicians joining him, completely unrehearsed. Hot!) The classical music world is trying to figure out its relationship to the rest of the world.

The rest of the world listens to pop (and jazz, and country, and hiphop, and dance music, and world music, and Latin music, and lots more). We live, as far as they’re all concerned, in a closed little box. We need to show them we’re human, too, and that we live in the same world they do. And that many of us listen to their music, which—because we live in the same world—is our music, too.

There’s more. We’re publicly funded. What’s our relationship to the community that funds us? Are we good neighbors? Do we respect what other kinds of musicians do? Or do we stand apart with our noses in the air, waiting for the chance to educate people to appreciate our superior art?

And then think of orchestra musicians who play nonclassical music (the Philadelphia Orchestra principal trombonist who plays in a Latin band, as shown in the film Music from the Inside Out; the players in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra who, I’ve heard, have a punk band and play at CBGB; so many more). Why should this be cut off from their orchestra life? Why can’t their orchestras—into which they pour so much of their hearts—nurture everything they do musically?

So, fine. The principle is clear. (At least to me.) But how do we put it into practice? I thought of one way when Aretha Franklin started singing opera arias. She stepped in for Pavarotti one year at the Grammys, singing “Nessun dorma” when he abruptly dropped out. She was sensational, though of course in her own style, not Puccini’s. (You can hear it—and see her, too—right here, thanks to YouTube. Forgive her Italian, and stay to the end, when the really great stuff comes.) Later on, she sang “Vissid’arte” and “Un bel di.” (I heard her do “Vissid’arte” with the Detroit Symphony; you can read my happy review.)

 So when she did that, I thought that opera companies should have congratulated her. “Aretha,” the Met could have said, “welcome to our music. Of course we don’t do it the way you do, but the way you do it makes us really happy. Come do a concert on our stage!”

But beyond that, what? How about some ideas we could try every day? So here’s one from Jennifer Foster, the broadcaster from WDAV, a classical public radio station at Davidson College in North Carolina, whose musical mashups I wrote about here before. Jennifer produces a show called The Main Street Sessions, which features many kinds of musicians, all from the station’s area.

Let Jennifer tell the story (as she wrote it in an e-mail to me, which I’m quoting with her permission):

Within the series I record and produce, Carolina Live: The Main Street Sessions (our station is on Main Street), I’ve wandered outside of classical boundaries several times. I have aired progressive jazz, jazz standards, Brazilian folk, Celtic, barbershop quartet, world percussion, singer/songwriter, and “new grass” material. I fully expected hate mail, irate phone calls, angry emails. We received none. In fact, words like “refreshing” and “innovative” came up in a smattering of emails, letters and conversations.

The context of the program and some sensitive editing on my part may have helped. I was able to humanize each musician or group of musicians using interview material that was presented along with (and sometimes layered over) the music we recorded in the performance studio.

I discovered (for me) it’s hard to discriminate against music when the humans making it are right in front of you. I put that affection to work on the air as best I could in the way I scripted, edited, framed and presented each segment.

I also deeply believe I can’t be the only person on earth who loves all kinds of music; that an ear that revels in classical music is also attracted to other kinds of music that are emotionally or texturally rich, complex or thrilling.

But there’s more:

We organized a live concert, calling on musicians who’d performed for the show to perform at the concert, held in an Episcopal church in uptown Charlotte. It was a remarkable array of performers — all ages, all types of music — and people loved it. All three hours of it! There was old music, early music, new music (Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues was a real high point), Latin music, and a barbershop quartet performed between numbers (the crowd loved them).

To top it off, a twenty-five-year-old Charlotte composer, Nathan Wright Shirley, wrote a piece that brought all of these diverse musicians together for a grand finale. He even wrote in a part toward the end for me (I’d been emcee al evening) to sing. It was a bit rough at the beginning — those early music folks were having a tough time with pitch — but once it gets into full swing, it isn’t half bad. You can hear it here:  (look for the “listen” button). Rough as it was, it brought the audience to their feet. What fun!

And what a great idea! And what a terrific way to make classical music part of the community, by making the community part of what a classical music institution does.

Another North Carolina example (which I’ve mentioned here before)—pianist Gregory McCallum taking his piano around the state, playing recitals, giving masterclasses, and organizing concerts everywhere he stopped, where local pianists of all ages and all musical persuasions could play. Greg wanted to take that to every county in the state, but unfortunately had to stop because of illness.

Many thanks to Jennifer, for doing all this, telling me about it, and letting me quote her. Check out The Main Street Sessions web page, on the station’s site. Sample concert program (scroll down on that page to see it):

• Original songs by Mike Orlando, mandolin, banjo and guitar, and sister Larina Orlando

Barbara Blaker-Krumdiek, baroque cello with viola da gamba/bass player/cellist, Robbie Link

Kate Minogue, wooden flute, guitar, & vocals

Billy Jones, the singer/songwriter whose homemade “Townie” T-shirt and musical connections launched the idea for the show.

Henry Lebedinsky

, musician of all trades & guest fiddler, Michael Albert from Boston

Which reminds me of one last—and best—reason to do all these kinds of music together:

Because they sound good together, and because people in the audience (who might not draw such hard and fast musical boundaries as we do) might like to hear them.

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