Another “solutions” post, this week’s entry in a series of posts that offer new ideas and, even better, new innovations — successful ones — in classical music.
This one comes Leo Pot, who emailed me from the Netherlands. He’s the director of Theaters Tilburg, a complex consisting of two theaters and a concert hall, in a town in the southern part of the Netherlands, with a population of 200,000. I’m quoting Leo’s email with his permission, though at his request I rewrote some of it, because English isn’t his first language.
Thanks, Leo! What he says is well worth reading. And the concerts, I’m sure, are well worth hearing. Note, too, that they don’t happen in a large city.
Three years ago I founded a new chamber orchestra, the Magogo Chamber Orchestra. The artistic director and conductor is Arjan Tien, a sought-after conductor in Holland and abroad, who teaches conducting at the Fontys Conservatory in Tilburg. He, along with violinist Marlene Hemmer and solo cellist Roeland Duijne, forms the artistic committee’ that gives Magogo’s artistic vision concrete shape.
The orchestra has classical music as it’s basis, but it is innovative and musically broad-based. It looks for a challenging balance between classical music and other quality music, regardless of when and how any of the music was created. The concerts are strongly informal, and are visually attractive. with vivid stage images (we use live projections, from cameras in the orchestra).
Declining attendance at classical concerts proves the need for these concerts to reinvent themselves (changing from high art into new art). As an artistic goal, they look for high-quality crossovers between classical music and music of other kinds, where classical music is always the starting point. Younger people cannot recognize themselves in classical concerts as they’re given now. Therefore we wanted to create an orchestra that does not only focus on the craftsmanship of the musicians, but instead on the fun of making music, on creativity, and on interaction with the audience.
The name of the orchestra comes from a composer whose music the orchestra played at its debut concert in September 2006. She is the legendary Zulu princess Magogo kaDinuzulu Buthelezi (1899-1984). She was not only a composer, but also a singer and political activist, and an authority on Zulu music and culture. Our concert was the first time any of her works were played in Europe.
Magogo’s musicians are mainly under 30, eager and excited. They were chosen from dozens of professionals who auditioned for the orchestra. Their enthusiasm helps make the concerts less formal. Concert dress is casual and colorful. The conductor and musicians look for interaction with the audience; the conventions of classical concerts are thrown away.
Examples of our concerts include:
- “Declaration of Love” (in which we played Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony [The Juliet Letters is a 1993 album created as a collaboration — in both composition and performance — between
Costello and the Brodsky Quartet.]
- “Mazeltov Magogo” (combining klezmer music with Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes and “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” by Kurt Weill)
- “Classical meets Frisian Fado” (Grieg’s Holberg Suite combined with songs by Nynke Laverman [a Dutch singer who mainly sings in Frisian, a language that is spoken in Friesland, the northern province of The Netherlands]
- “Musique du Cirque” (featuring Charlie Chaplin’s 1969 score for his 1928 silent comedy The Circus, music from the Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco, and the Divertimento for Strings No. 1 by Leo Weiner, plus students from the Fontys Circus, doing acrobatics and other circus acts)
But Magogo also plays what they call “unheard music,” or in other words music that’s rarely heard. Some examples: in 2008, they did a show called Classic Meets Riverdancem, for which the famous composers Bill Whelan and Zoe Conway wrote new work.
In addition, the orchestra got high praise for performing the rarely heard original version of Carmina Burana, with two pianos, percussion, choir and soloists. They have also performed the Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings by Lutoslawski, and other less-known works.
In 2009, Magogo drew an average of 494 people to its concerts. And it attracts a younger audience. A national survey from 2004 shows that 45% of the people who attend classical concerts in the Netherlands are over 60, but at Magogo’s concerts only 18.9% are.
Finally, Magogo plays an important part in the careers of young musicians. In the Netherlands, only 4 to 5% of music students find employment during their first year after graduating. Magogo is able to offer jobs to these recent graduates, giving them experience in playing with an orchestra.
Could a group like this thrive in a small city in the US? It’s hard to see why not.