Breaking the mold

I want to talk about people in classical music who break the mold. Leave the classical music business far behind, and do things in new ways. New ways that work!

Here’s my first nomination: Ad Hoc, in Rochester, NY, which on its website calls itself “an ephemeral chamber ensemble.” Though after more than a dozen performances, they’ve got some staying power.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

You enter a beautiful hall — acoustically perfect — where musicians are getting ready to rehearse. You hear the noise of individual warm-ups for a few minutes until the the tuning note sounds. The room quiets. They take a familiar, collective breath — just a second of silence before sound pours from the stage. They start to play, and it’s effortless, like they’ve done this a million times. There are dozens of rehearsals ahead of them. The concert has been planned for months. By the time that night comes, they will have prepared an impeccably polished performance. The lights in the hall will dim, the audience will take their seats, and everything will go as planned…

That’s not us.

And instead of wishing that it were, we celebrate the edge and energy that come with limited resources. We schlep our own music stands, print our own programs, and play on tight schedules and short notice. We don’t have a performance hall. We rarely play with the same people twice. Our performances come together at the last minute, so they feel a little more like jams than concerts. We think that’s an exciting, interesting way to make music – and it’s a lot of fun.

And, on top of that — they tell their audience how little they’ve rehearsed! And who in the group might be sightreading, because they’re replacing someone who at the last movement got a gig that paid too much to turn down.

It’s worth browsing their website to see what they play, and how they present themselves. How their concerts sometimes feature visual art. How they had a contest for kids — kids wrote stories, they picked a couple as winners, and had composers set them to music.

For next year they have some terrific concert ideas, which I hope they’ll let me share.

Full disclosure — I’m on their advisory board. But I was asked to join it just recently, long after I’d given them enthusiastic support, in emails and a visit with their founder and conductor, Rebecca Smithorn. And in a blog post I wrote early this year, where you can read a message Rebecca sent me, which will tell you more about what they do.

I’d known Rebecca for years at that point, again through email, with one meeting in person. She’s one of many people I know — and whose terrific work I know — because of this blog. Part of the community my blog seems to define. Makes me happy when I see it grow! It’s a community defined by nothing more than an urge to change classical music, to bring it into the present day, to see it reborn. And of course that means it’s a community defined by much more than my blog, but the blog seems to bring large parts of it together.

Shortly I’ll post a nomination from someone in this community, who names another mold-breaker we should celebrate. 

If you’ve got someone, or want to name yourself, let me know!


Other posts in this series:

Looking for mavericks

Mavericks nominations” (the first group of readers’ suggestions)

More Mavericks” (more readers’ suggestions)

Path-breaking piano curriculum“(about a truly astounding program at a Canadian university)

Mavericks — continuing” (still more from readers)

We personalize what music is” (about the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, which is breaking 

A lot of mavericks” (final nominations from readers — who suggested more than 50 people and groups)

Final mavericks — Jade Simmons and a Go-Go symphony” (final only for 2012, because we’ll resume this in 2013)

Still more mavericks (resuming in 2013, with marvelous things from two major institutions, the Toronto Symphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)

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    • says

      Thanks for this!

      I’ve had some small contact with them, and, as you say, their website is notable, and their live performances seem pretty hot. But — with no disrespect to them — that’s not all I meant by maverick. I’m looking for people/groups in classical music who reinvent their relationships with musicians, audience, and the world outside. Performing in new venues, in a more friendly way, is one step toward that, but I want to see people go further. So that, for instance, there’d be a buzz all over Boston, even among people who don’t go to L’academie’s shows. A buzz saying this is a lively group, and that there are ways to get involved with it, quite beyond being there when they play.

  1. says

    Don’t get me wrong, Greg. I am with you all the way on Breaking the Mold and “getting out of the classical music business.” Ad Hoc sounds edgy and great. I love that they tell their audience how little they rehearse.

    Is it no longer sexy to rehearse, work hard, and give polished performances? In their statement above, is Ad Hoc implying that there’s no energy or excitement when groups plan a program and rehearse? Because that’s not true any more than saying that people who sight read in front of an audience are sloppy and apathetic.

    Speaking of working with limited resources, those of us who run tiny arts organizations are very aware that we have to do more with much less these days. We all schlep our stands and make our own programs, whether or not we rehearse. Most of us also do not have a dedicated performance hall.

    Performing in alternative venues, yes. Exploring concert formats that are inclusive and friendly for the audience, yes. Amateurs and professionals sight reading and jamming together in a bar, YES!

    For me, it’s also very satisfying to walk into an old theater, grab a beer and a s, and watch/listen to people who have spent their entire lives honing their craft give a kick ass performance of a few great pieces of music. You know that since they are professionals, they are cramming 4-6 rehearsals (2-3 hours each) in over a period of weeks, all while working other gigs (i.e. the symphony, opera, ballet, or teaching full time at a college) to make a living. They’ve submerged themselves in the music and the preparation of it. Their whole hearts are invested. They live in the scores and argue with each other over a particular bowing, or how to shape one four-bar phrase…an argument that could cause serious tension in their friendships. All this for a single, 2.5 hour event, for which they may or may not get paid. They may have even turned down work that would have paid more, all to bring this awesome music to life for an evening. To me, this is edge. This is energy and excitement that is palpable when the lights go down and the show begins. Throw in great conversation and interaction with the audience (which could be as few as 50 people) from the stage, and I will pay good money for that.

    A good friend said recently, “Music belongs to all of us. Professional musicians, through the stress of both training and the rigors of professional life, get separated from their original roots of why they fell in love with music in the first place, and audiences perceive it. Audiences are sophisticated that way.”

    My biggest hope is that groups like Ad Hoc, Classical Revolution and like-minded groups all over the country will draw in (and keep) new audiences– and lead them back IN to concert halls to see symphony orchestras, not away from them. It’s time to stop pointing fingers at orchestras for being “stuffy” and “elitist.” We can leave the classical music business behind, yes, but it is in our best interest to work to help these awesome institutions revitalize and thrive, not die.

    Thanks for writing the great blog, Mr. S!

    • says

      Thanks for your thanks, Paloma!

      Ad Hoc isn’t claiming that un- or underrehearsed performances are the best thing possible. They’re making a virtue of what they have, what they are. Everyone can learn from that. You’ll see that one of my future maverick choices, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, in Houston, rehearses very thoroughly.

      I think it’s time for all the groups trying/succeeding with new things to, in a sense, pool their efforts and learn from each other. We need a sustainable future, which means one where musicians can make a living.

      Myself, I don’t care whether all these new groups/new ways of doing classical music serve or don’t serve as a gateway to all the old groups. I think the old groups, including orchestras, have to establish interest and support on their own. If they can’t do it by themselves, why should someone turned on by River Oaks (let’s say) care about them? Their failure, very precisely, is in creating interest. Not because what they do is elevated, complex, or needs special education or prior exposure to appreciate. But because — unless you’re already in love with the music — they’re blah.

      Kind of like (if you’ll allow a left-field comparison) Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, his next to last opera. I’m besotted with bel canto, so I’ll listen to it, and I’d love to see it. But the larger world — from its premiere until now — has managed to resist, because it’s just not so good. Orchestras, in this comparison, mostly rank with Beatrice. Not compelling to those not already in love. We need them to have the punch of Norma or I Puritani. (End of left-field analogy.)

    • says

      I’ll second what Greg said and expand a bit, because I think it’s an important point. Every time I talk about Ad Hoc at one of our concerts, I tell our audience that there are lots of ways to make music. There’s the kind of music-making where you work together as an ensemble for years, rehearse for hours on end, get deep into a piece – and that’s an incredibly meaningful experience. So meaningful, in fact, that everybody on stage at any given Ad Hoc concert is working their backsides off to be able to do it for the rest of their lives. Most of us are gigging and subbing and auditioning and working (non-musical) day jobs in hopes of getting to participate in that kind of deep music-making for a living. And I also tell our audience that that kind of music-making is (sometimes) an incredibly meaningful thing to hear, and that if it’s not something they’ve experienced, they should cough up fifty bucks for their nearest longstanding professional group and go have a listen.

      But, as we all know, there are other ways to make music – and working in ad hoc groups, at its best, is fun and risky and exciting – so let’s talk about it! One of the things that I notice – one of the things that prompted me to work with Ad Hoc the way I do – is that I go to small, scrappy ensemble performances and I love it. It’s fun to watch. But more often than not, those ensembles try to present themselves in the same way that their local professional symphony orchestra does. And that’s a double whammy – they don’t have the resources to live up to those standards, and they’re hiding what is perhaps the most interesting thing about their ensemble. We have an amazing amount of diversity in the classical music eco-system – people should know about it!

      Incidentally, the food industry does this brilliantly. If I open up the hippest, coolest food magazine ever, I’ll see stories about a Michelin-starred restaurant and a food truck with amazing burritos, and both will be covered with the same level of legitimacy and enthusiasm. In fact, if I have to talk to people about Ad Hoc in ten words or less, I tell them we’re like the food truck of chamber music – fast, cheap, and flavorful. Musical fine dining exists, and it’s a great experience, but we’re not it!

  2. Paloma says

    Hi Rebecca,

    I love the food truck analogy! And thanks to you and Greg both for your thoughts. Ad Hoc sounds great. I was just in Rochester last week- wish I could have heard the group. Cheers and Merde!