NOI liftoff

Last Thursday night — June 25 — was the first National Orchestral Institute concert in which the students tried out the ideas we’ve talked about here, here, and here. (And, more indirectly, here, too.)

The concert was, if you ask me — and if you ask the students — a great success. I’ll describe it in a moment. But here’s something to think about. Debate raged over the ideas the students put forth, a very raw collection, right off the top of their heads, the first day they’d thought about these things. Some people making comments here liked the ideas. Some didn’t. Some liked some of the ideas, but not others. Some thought the ideas would lead to effective outreach, some didn’t. Some worried that the ideas — if carried out on any large scale — would make too great a change in classical concerts.

But suppose the students hadn’t been thinking of larger implications? Suppose they’d just been trying to please themselves?

Here’s what happened. This was a concert called “New Lights,” featuring contemporary music chosen by the director of the NOI, James Ross. He’d picked four pieces: Leon Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 4, Elliott Carter’s pathbreaking woodwind quartet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Christopher Rouse’s Ogoun Badageris, for percussion quartet, and John Adams’s Chamber Symphony. A serious program, by any standard.

And part of the point had nothing to do with concert innovations. This was music the students mostly didn’t know, and hadn’t played, in styles they might not have had experience with. And they were challenged to put the program together without a conductor (for the Adams), or with any outside coaching. They had to figure it all out for themselves. Of course they could listen to recordings, but that’s not at all the same as understanding — in your mind, your ear, and your gut — how the figure in measure 76 that you play on your viola fits into the larger texture. That’s especially a problem in the Adams, which has complex textures, tricky rhythms, constant changes, and often goes at a breakneck pace.

So musically the students were challenged (a wonderful challenge, I think, which is bound to grow their understanding of music, just as it’d grow my own if I could be in their position). But they were also empowered, because they were in charge. Which surely made this concert a good choice for trying out the students’ ideas for new ways to present music. Not — an important point — because the music might have been difficult for the audience, or for the students themselves, but because this was a concert in which the students took full charge.

The Kirchner opened the program, and the four students who played it chose to introduce it with a video, in which we saw and heard them rehearsing, and talking about how they put the piece together. The video was quite professional. The students shot and edited it themselves. They also decided to add some subtle lighting changes, to go with changes in the music’s mood. These were unobtrusive, I thought, and if anyone didn’t care for them — or didn’t care for the idea of lighting changes, under any circumstances — at least these didn’t hit anyone in the face. So the idea was, I thought, expertly executed.

Then came an addition to the program, rock songs — by Yes, the Decembrists Decemberists,

and Journey, plus one by a former NOI student (a good song, no way to tell it wasn’t by a well known band), plus a last-minute addition, “Billie Jean,” of course added as a tribute to Michael Jackson, whose death was in the news that day.

The instrumentation for this: marimba, acoustic bass, guitar, discreet flute, drums (or more precisely a drummer drumming informally on what looked like a wooden box), and finally, but not least, a bassoon, which took major solos, with a sound that could have been a slightly shadowy sax. This produced an intriguing kind of line-drawing sound, distinguished more by light and shade than by bright or changing colors. Again, the students’ choice. Turns out that they could sing very well, two of them with complete rock-band professional skill.

And then came the Carter (or most of it; the students were told they were free to leave out some of the etudes, and just to play the ones they felt they’d really mastered in their rehearsals; they played most of them). I thought this would be a strange segue, that the Carter would seem like it came from some other universe, and especially that it would sound stiff after the rock songs.

But that didn’t happen! For me, this was the happiest part of the concert. The students chose to give a spoken introduction to each etude separately (the etudes re short, and greatly varied). The flute player did this, and chose to emphasize the compositional techniques used in each piece. Which turned out not to be at all academic, because his genuine interest in those techniques was unmistakable, because the techniques are clearly audible, and finally because the techniques turn out to be a lot of fun.

So the piece came across as loose and colloquial, the kind of music anyone could listen to. The people in audience liked it all so much that they started applauding spontaneously after each etude, quite spontaneously, and happily continued applauding even after the flutist, not wanting them to feel any obligation, suggested that they didn’t have to keep doing it.

Then came intermission. Student percussionists were supposed to play Ogoun Badageris in the lobby during the intermission, but that got canned, because an elderly woman in the audience fell and hurt herself (a broken bone, I was told, but she seemed alert and not too badly troubled). You can’t play a percussion quartet when the EMS is about to show up. The Rouse was rescheduled, still out in the lobby, for the end of the concert.

Back into the concert hall (a small one, seating perhaps two or three hundred people; it was nearly full) for the second half. First came what the students called the “No Lights” Ensemble, eight musicians (trumpets, viola, tuba, harp, and horn) who announced that they’d play a free improvisation. And that we in the audience were invited to join in. Which many of us did.

There’s a little more backstory — at chamber concerts during the past couple of weeks, the audience was invited to submit material for the improvisation, either musical phrases (which they’d write down in musical notation), or else verbal phrases, which the students could interpret musically however they liked. From all of this, the “No Lights” players picked a single, simple rhythm, which they taught to the audience (it didn’t take long), and which turned out to give the improvisation a clear and strong spine.

The results were a lot of fun. Hard to resist, and quite invented, from everyone involved.

Then came Adams, with a brief spoken introduction. Adams had been inspired, he said, by classic old cartoons, and so, we were told, cartoons would be shown on TV monitors, placed just beyond the two ends of the stage. The monitors were a little small, which might have reflected a not quite right decision, or else a limitation in available equipment. That helped make the cartoons unobtrustive, but I can’t imagine how — unless they were blown up to gigantic size — they would have bothered anyone. They certainly went with the music, and a Washington Post critic (not my wife) thought they added a lot.

(And that the music added a lot to the cartoons. You can read his review here. Scroll down to find it. It’s on my wife’s blog, but that doesn’t mean that she had any connection to it, other than to have assigned it as part of a selection of NOI reviews that the paper runs every year. All classical reviews in the paper show up in her blog; that’s why it’s there.)

And then, as people variously headed home or gathered to talk, the Rouse piece was rousingly played in the lobby. And that was it. End of the concert. As I talked to various students whom I’d met when I spoke at two sessions at the start of their program, what emerged is something I can’t stress enough. They loved this concert, whether they were playing in it, or sitting in the audience. (And joining the group improvisation, with their voices, with clapping, or whatever sound they felt like making.) I can’t guess what percentage of the students were involved, either way, but there seemed to be a lot of them.

And why did they love it? Not because they were trying to reach out to anyone, though I’m sure that if we asked them, they say they thought people their age might relate to what they did. But what they liked most was that the concert was theirs — not just because they were in full charge (Jim Ross told me the only guidance he offered was that any innovations they tried should grow out of the music), but because the concert involved them as a complete human beings and musicians. In other words, it spoke to a wide range of things they like about music, and a wide range of music that they like.

Some of them, at least, truly felt empowered. One talked to me afterwards about what a high the concert had been for him, and how sobering it might be to get back into the normal classical music world, where he’d be much more limited.

So let’s put aside, for a moment, any question about whether all classical concerts should morph into something like this one. Who knows? That question isn’t even on the table yet, not in the real world. Only in some speculative discussions. And let’s also agree not to worry much about whether any particular person, no matter how impassioned, might not have liked what was going on. This was only one concert. Nobody had to like it. Nobody had to go to it! And nobody said — before, during, or after — that this was perfect.

Just consider this. Some fair number of student classical musicians — selected, after thorough auditions, for a very demanding special program — chose this as the kind of concert they’d like to give, when they were given full control. Some people reading this might have made a a different choice. But what does it mean that the students chose the way they did — especially if they’re at all representative of classical musicians their age?

Footnote: I guess I had some role in getting things moving in this direction, but the best part of my involvement is that, when I was at the concert, I couldn’t tell that I’d had a role. I didn’t recognize ideas that were specifically mine, ideas I’d told the students about, or in any way urged on them. The event seemed entirely theirs, and that seemed like the best involvement that I could have had.

A second footnote: Jim Ross is a visionary. Not just for setting the students on the path of concert innovations, but for putting them in full charge. And for giving them tough music to learn, all on their own. This is how to produce empowered, self-motivated musicians, a human bonanza that goes far beyond anything that might be needed for the future of classical music.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Some of the most amazing performances of any type come when you allow musicians free reign to use their creative energies as they see fit. No wonder the Berlin Philharmonic has more than a dozen self-organized chamber ensembles. Here in Portland musicians in the Oregon Symphony run the two contemporary music ensembles in town (Third Angle and FearNoMusic), have string quartets, brass ensembles, produce concerts – the entire gamut. I wish that there had been this sort of opportunity at NOI when I attended (the first three years of its existence) – it’s a fabulous idea, one that I hope will continue.

  2. brett says

    … and speaking of Portland, one of our fave bands actually spells its name “Decemberists.”

    Thanks for keeping us posted on NOI and the students’ fascinating ideas, Greg.

  3. Yvonne says

    This sounds like a thrilling and dynamic concert. I would have liked to have been there.

    From your report at least, it does seem that the students were following the advice of letting the music lead their decisions. That was excellent advice, especially since so often the discussion of concert presentation innovations in general seems to be quite divorced from what the music might actually demand or what might best serve the music and its listeners.

    But I do think there’s one point that you zoom over in the obvious excitement this concert has inspired. You write at several points about the students having “full control” and “full charge”, etc. But in one crucial area, perhaps the most important thing of all, the students were not in full control: the program was “chosen by the director of the NOI, James Ross.”

    I’m not saying that the students necessarily should have programmed the concert. Part of the success and impact of the event, and of the students’ contributions, was surely determined by the interesting and challenging selection of repertoire. And not all performers are necessarily programmers by any means. That’s as much an art as composing or playing an instrument.

    But I think it’s misleading to suggest that the students had full control. Of preparation and presentation, yes, and these are two huge things on their own, so not to be sneezed at. But to the extent that programming and presentation are wondrously intertwined arts, that control has definite limitations the minute someone else has determined what you will play.

  4. Yvonne says

    There’s a really beautiful underlying point to this post, one which I don’t think is brought out frequently enough.

    It’s an idea that I would sum up as “authenticity” – maybe there’s a better word. It’s this idea that when musicians give “the kind of concert they’d like to give” (especially if they’re taking the music as their guide, which is your other point) then the result has a fighting chance of being empowering and fresh, and of genuinely communicating with an audience.

    If I’m summarising correctly, it’s not about conforming, either to conventional standards or contemporary fads, and it’s not about trying as a first goal to reach out to any particular age group [I’m glad you made the point that any such connection was a pleasant side-effect]. It’s about presenting something you love in a way that shows your love for it.

    I know I keep harping on about it, but I believe when you do that, the results will have wider appeal as well as greater artistic integrity than any superficial attempt to reach a specific age demographic.

    I think sometimes that the audience statistics have led everyone to focus on the doom-and-gloom of “not enough young people” with the result that we begin thinking we must set out to attract more young people. Whereas I will say until I’m blue in the face that we must set out to present better, more exciting, more authentically conceived, more imaginative, more engaging concerts. Concerts that we believe in (however old or young “we” as performers, presenters or audience might be). The goals need to be artistic not demographic. The results may occasionally look the same, but the difference will be profound.

  5. says

    Congratulations, well done, bravo to the students.

    But what did the audience think, especially those who may not have had a personal connection to the players…

    I suppose that is another subject for another time.

    But with declining audiences, indulging the students seems counter intuitive to me.

  6. Yvonne says

    @Larry: I’d have to disagree with you about “indulging” the students.

    Perhaps you could see it that way. But all classical concert presentations are someone’s “indulgence” already, whether that’s an organisation or a chief conductor or a managing director or an artistic planner or a small ensemble of musicians or (heaven forbid, but I’m sure it happens from time to time) even a board member or donor. Whenever a concert is put on, someone is deciding to perform repertoire they believe in and in a style of presentation they like or approve. This isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing. Not at all. Except, as you say, audiences are declining, so perhaps there are certain aspects of our current indulgences that have to be revisited.

    As I’ve already suggested in a previous comment, I see this so-called indulgence of the students as a way of seeking an authentic performance that they believe in. If they do it well and with musical integrity there’s a very good chance it will bring pleasure to an audience. Note that, at least according to Greg’s description, nothing the students tried was wilful, unmusical, irrelevant, amateurish or “indulgent” in a negative sense. The only thing that was “indulgent” about it was that they were trying to put on a performance that they themselves might enjoy as musicians and as listeners.

    Think of it this way. You’re hosting a party. For some reason you believe that everyone expects a highly formal sit-down dinner with all the trimmings. (Because it’s always been done that way.) But that’s not your style and doesn’t really suit the kind of food you like to cook or the friends you’re going to invite. If you do it anyway, it will probably be a lousy party and next time everyone will make their excuses. Or you can decide to run a more relaxed or imaginative presented dinner that’s in tune with the guests and the food and that you’ll enjoy hosting. Is that self-indulgence? Or just smart? Which one would you rather attend?

  7. Jennifer Newlin says

    Larry: The audience loved it–it was an amazing evening and a wonderful event. The crowd was very responsive, and I think more than not participated when we were asked to. It was a great addition to an already excellent month of music at Maryland and am looking forward to watching the New Lights progress in the coming years. And what should REALLY be posted for every one to see is the version of Billy Jean–

    And I have no connection to the students or the program or the Center–just happy to work at the University so I know this goes on every year!

  8. says

    Sounds like a wonderful event, may there be many more. Sometimes classical concerts have the feeling of presenting music as gorgeous butterflies pinned just so under glass. Your write up suggests this music was fluttering all around the hall and lobby with great vibrancy and vitality. Keep up the good work!

  9. says

    How many have had their computers crash because of viruses or Trojans loaded when we accidentally arrive at the ‘wrong’ web site or have had our teenagers do the same thing? How much pornography is available on the Internet? Are these questions that may be addressed by the FCC or Henry Waxman? Absolutely not! There are web sites that broadcast conservative, libertarian or Republican thoughts that need to be eradicated. The fact that people want to hear Rush Limbaugh a great deal more than that idiot Chris Matthews only indicates they’ve been brainwashed . . . but in the wrong way. Henry Waxman to the rescue! Matthews, Maddow et. al. need to be heard! We’ll whisper if need be. We’ll seek others with open minds and we’ll find each other. Neither Henry Waxman nor any other liberal will stop us.

  10. says

    As a student at Maryland, I had the fortune of playing in the UMSO under Jim Ross during 2002-04. I really appreciate the new concert ideas that he has tried throughout the years. He should be applauded for his flexibility and adaptability in a genre that some view as unwilling to adapt to changing culture. Examples include a Petrushka puppet show, dancers on stage among musicians, on-stage narrations that accompany Berlioz and Shostakovich, and encouraging applause *during* a performance similar to a jazz concert (e.g., after a solo).

    I already have my ticket to the first NOI 2010 concert! Another great summer of concerts awaits.

  11. says

    As a student at Maryland, I had the fortune of playing in the UMSO under Jim Ross during 2002-04. I really appreciate the new concert ideas that he has tried throughout the years. He should be applauded for his flexibility and adaptability in a genre that some view as unwilling to adapt to changing culture. Examples include a Petrushka puppet show, dancers on stage among musicians, on-stage narrations that accompany Berlioz and Shostakovich, and encouraging applause *during* a performance similar to a jazz concert (e.g., after a solo).