Crossing over

There’s a lot of buzz in classical music these days about community — reaching out, if you’re a performing group, to the community you’re in, involving the community in what you do.

There are endless examples. The Cincinnati Symphony has been doing “One City, One Symphony” events, involving  a gala performance of a piece (they started with Beethoven’s Ninth), and listening parties around the city, all built around the theme of “our common humanity.” (The link goes to a Huffington Post piece about the project, since, incredibly, the orchestra has too little about it on its own website to give you any real idea of what’s going on.)

More examples: Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic teamed up to bring The Rite of Spring to New York City public school students, teaching some of them to dance to the music, and working with others to create a new piece based on the Stravinsky piece.

And in Washington, DC, where I live, the National Symphony goes into city neighborhoods.

All of which is good. Except that it goes only one way. Classical music people go into neighborhoods, bringing people what we do. But communication doesn’t go one way in the age of the Internet. Two-way conversations reign, with customers and audience stating their views, reviewing products and performances, and being consulted in planning.

So do those of us who work in classical music want to hear from the communities we go into? Do we care what people in those communities think? Would we involve them in our planning? Would we do things that were their idea, not ours? And, most important, how much do we know or care  — and show that we know and care — about the culture our communities already have?

As I once asked in what must have seemed like a provocative blog post, would Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic bring in community people to teach them salsa dancing, or how to produce a hiphop song? I doubt I made many friends at Carnegie Hall by saying that, but it’s an important point. If we expect communities to care about our stuff, shouldn’t we care about what they do?

Enter the Go-Go Symphony

A week ago, an ensemble called the Go-Go Symphony kicked off a festival at Washington’s Atlas Performing Arts Center (a key center for alternative art in DC), with an hour-long performance/dance party, partnered by the Capital City Symphony, a full semiprofessional symphony orchestra that’s in residence at the Atlas.

And the results were spectacular. Go-go is Washington’s iconic funk dance music, dating from the 1970s, but very much still alive. Now it was mashed up with classical music, with go-go drummers, a rapper, dancers, and go-go instrumental soloists (some on classical instruments), backed by a full symphonic ensemble. The house truly rocked, and people (including classical musicians) were in the aisles dancing.

Regular readers here knew this was coming. Liza Figueroa Kravinsky, founder of the Go-Go Symphony, has been guest-blogging about the growth of her project, most recently here. I’m required to say that I first met Liza at a very early stage of the project, when she hired me as a consultant. In my introduction to her last blog post, I said, quite correctly, that I’d had nothing to do with the spectacular successes she described, in which she pretty much conquered the DC go-go world.

Photo by Joshua Cruse

Photo by Joshua Cruse

In a comment, she gently corrected me, very kindly saying that I’d contributed a lot at the start, helping her with her orchestration, and, most crucially, suggesting that she start her own ensemble, instead of going around to classical groups till she found one ready to perform with her. I now remember that I did give her that advice (which, I think, many people in the classical world would have given her).

I also put her in touch with my friend John Devlin, associate conductor of the Capital City Symphony, since I’d heard him collaborate with an R&B band, and knew he could bring alive music with a beat. Not that I knew what would happen! Liza’s work was at such an early stage that all I could say was  that John might talk to her. What developed after that was entirely between them.

And in fact I’m saying this much about my own role only because, when you do journalism (blogs included), you’ve got to disclose anything that seems like a conflict of interest. When Liza opened at a big club for DC’s leading go-go band (as you can read in her last blog post) — I wasn’t involved with that at all.

And the way she and John developed an hour-long show, in which several pieces of mixed-genre music were played against a nonstop surge of go-go drumming (as Liza taught me, at go-go shows the drums never stop) — that was entirely between them. I went to the show not knowing what to expect, and in fact guessing, if I had to guess, that the Capital City Symphony would play a concert, with Liza’s three-movement Go-Go Symphony (the piece has the same name as the group) as the climax.

Not so. The entire concert was presented as a go-go show, including go-goified versions of classical pieces (“The Hall of the Mountain King,” and the familiar start of Thus Spake Zarathustra, which, with go-go drums under it, is beyond exhilarating). But also pieces played by the Go-Go Symphony’s instrumentalists (an oboe! playing go-go!), and then, yes, the Go-Go Symphony at the end. But it didn’t feel like a piece on a symphony program. It felt like something that grew organically from the fusion we could see and hear unfolding before us.

Full house. Forty percent from the Capital City’s mailing list, I was told, and the rest newcomers, maybe go-go fans, or people from the Atlas audience. The audience was more heavily white than I would have expected, given the Go-Go Symphony’s conquest of the go-go world, but developing a black audience at the Atlas (no disrespect to them) might take a while.

Everyone who knew music agreed that the drums were too strong in the mix, making it hard to hear the strings. But people I talked to were just about jumping with happiness. And the Washington Post critic (not my wife Anne Midgette, who’s the main classical music critic there, and was reviewing something else) liked the show a lot. (The Post, by the way, pretty much had to review the show, since it opened a major festival at a major venue, and since the Go-Go Symphony had already proved itself at go-go shows.)

What this can teach us

So what can the classical music world learn from this? How to relate to communities. Or, anyway, one way of doing that, especially if you’re going into a minority neighborhood, and realize you might want to care about what already happens there. Do their music. Or, even better, show that it fits perfectly well with your own. I haven’t been to the NSO’s neighborhood shows, but from what I’ve heard, they play standard classical stuff.

Which isn’t to say they shouldn’t do that, or that other things they do — let kids try out the instruments, for instance — aren’t great, too.

But are he communities they visit mirrored, in any way, in these events? Were they in the examples I gave from New York and Cincinnati?

This is an important frontier for classical music. If the National Symphony — not singling them out for special criticism; just using them as an example — brought the Go-Go Symphony into DC neighborhoods…well, look: I’m not saying they shouldn’t do straight classical music, too. They have to do it. They’d be lying about themselves if they didn’t. But if they also came with something like the Go-Go Symphony, I can just about guarantee that they’d blow people away. And (especially if they returned a few times to neighborhoods they visit) make some friends, from people who’d feel cared about.

And then they — along with people in New York, Cincinnati, and elsewhere — could make more friends for classical music, in all its forms. Isn’t friendship a two-way street?

After she read this post, Liza emailed this to me. Answers any questions I had about why the audience was so white.

About the mostly white audience – many African American go-go fans wanted to go; but apparently go-go fans don’t tend to buy go-go music tickets in advance. They’re used to making such decisions at the last minute and buying tickets at the door.  Many had to be turned away – some were in the standing room only areas. Even Big Tony of Trouble Funk couldn’t get in! Also, they are used to going to go-go shows late at night, and the show started at 8 PM. 

The younger white population is quite familiar with go-go because their generation had go-go parties in their schools.  So yes, there were white go-go fans at the show. 

Anyway, many go-go musicians are happy that go-go is being exposed to a wider audience; so nobody so far has complained.  But I’d like to somehow figure out how to schedule and run our shows so that more African Americans can be included.  Perhaps later shows?  Walk in tickets?  Perhaps they learned their lesson about buying tickets in advance?

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  1. says

    A BRIDGE is a two-way street, yes INDEED Greg!
    My idea in this respect is to have the venue we reached out to, assign a group to play for US classical musicians, as part of the show. It can be singing, jazz, gospel, dance, blues, Latin or whatever… but having that give-and-take and making respectful, even loving comparisons demonstrate that classical can HAVE A BEER with pop culture.

    I did a CutTIme Simfonica concert last week for a traditional presenter with a number of college students attending for a “music appreciation” class (plus a number of octogenarians I might add). A young man suggested afterward that covering some rock songs would sound really good with strings. I agreed with him and told him of a local group that does nothing BUT, and who I often feature at my CLUB series.

    CutTime is banking on the idea that while young people SAY they want to see walls torn down, they also occasionally want to see music that DEFINES a genre. In my book, you don’t get to dismiss Beethoven 3 as a warhorse if you’ve NEVER actually seen Beethoven 3 performed WELL even once! So if I can arrange even a major excerpt of that music for my “classical band” for a bar crowd, then they might experience the surprising thrill of an extended development section, missing from most other genres. Alternation is key to showing there is a time for everything.

  2. says

    Big Tony of Trouble Funk is the one that suggested that traditional go-go fans tend not to buy tickets in advance. He told me that when we were trying to sell advanced tickets to the 9:30 Club. Our bass player John Gordon, who is quite familiar with the traditional go-go audience, told me that Trouble Funk fans would probably not show up for the show until 11 pm. That is how I get these impressions about the African American go-go audience. I may be wrong, but I was just reporting what other people tell me.

  3. says

    PASO (the Pan American Symphony Orchestra) has been performing works by Latin American composers for over 2 decades in Washington, DC, but with the intent primarily to expose Americans to the rich symphonic music south of our border. However, last October PASO offered a free concert of best-loved Spanish songs in the Gala Hispanic Theatre and Latinos from across the area filled the theatre, even sitting on the floor,. These were songs they all grew up listening to, but many never had the chance to hear them performed live by 60 musicians.. The feedback from the Spanish speaking audience was overwhelmingly positive. Due to the success of the performance, in 2015 PASO will bring a well-known Central American pop/folk singer to perform in Montgomery County, Maryland, where some districts are more than 25% Hispanic, many of whom are new immigrants who would never have the chance to hear a live symphony.. Your point about the music in the community going both ways is a good one. Like go-go joining the symphony in DC, we hope that Central American pop and folk joining our symphony will bring us new friends who will develop an appreciation for a variety of symphonic music and for the value of music education for their children, the new Americans.