'Open to the New'

Cincinnati's “Classical” music scene moving in exciting new directions

Aug 31, 2011 at 2:06 pm

What is “new music” within the classical music genre? Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto, which receives its world premiere at the Cincinnati Symphony next year? CCM composer Michael Fiday’s “9 Haiku” for flute and piano performed last year by concert:nova? Leonard Bernstein’s 1937 Trio Sonata that gets its first local performance by the Morgenstern Trio in March? And is there even an audience for contemporary music?

The answers are: all of the above, and absolutely yes. Innovative ensembles are setting down roots, defying the assumption that no one shows up for contemporary music while attracting the diverse, young audiences that arts groups so desperately seek.

The most successful groups acknowledge that audiences can have the same apprehensions about new music as they do about Beethoven and Brahms.

“They think they need to know more than they do,” says Ixi Chen, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's clarinetist and artistic director for concert: nova, the innovative ensemble that has offered an exciting mix of familiar and new works in unusual venues since 2007. “If you can convey the story behind it, the work has a pivot point.”

She points to last December’s performance of Pierre Boulez’s rarely heard “Messagesquisses” for solo cello and six cellos. “We talked about Boulez, what was going on when this piece was written and who were his motivators. We also played Mahler, Brahms and The Beatles. And people got it. They said, 'We never get to hear this kind of work.' ”

Concert:nova’s schedule is still in the works. They will be part of the Constella Festival in October but the must-hear event is an evening devoted to Frank Zappa’s work. “Peaches en Regalia” included?

When music is a challenge, venue is a crucial element and concert:nova’s choices are part of its appeal. With no fixed concert space, concert:nova’s performances have drawn capacity crowds to Know Theatre, the Red Tree Gallery Coffee House, Ichiban Japanese Cuisine and Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute. Not Music Hall-sized, but capacity nonetheless.

Classical Revolution’s monthly sessions at Northside Tavern have a loyal following for everything from string quartets to electric guitar solos. The setting is the first step in challenging expectations, says CR Coordinator Laura Sabo, a CCM doctoral student.

“You’re not beholden to sit and listen in silence,” Sabo says. “You can get up, walk around, walk away, have a conversation. If we play a new piece with the composer, there’s a chance to discuss the music. That can’t happen in a concert hall.”

“People are more open to anything when they’re having a drink,” agrees cellist Matt Haimovitz, who premieres Philip Glass’ “Cello Concerto” with the CSO in March and who has played in coffeehouses, subway stations and the world’s greatest concert halls. “It’s liberating because there are no expectations.”

Composer Michael Fiday says the scene for new music has improved for local composers since he joined CCM’s faculty in 2002. In addition to Classical Revolution and concert:nova, he’s encouraged by the Fringe Festival’s offerings of his students’ music and Drew Klein’s appointment as the Contemporary Arts Center’s curator of performing art. And CCM is an incubator for new work with weekly concerts by students, faculty and guest artists.

Fiday’s music has been performed at CCM and by concert:nova. Bucking the naysayers, Fiday says that audiences are more open to new music as genres become more fluid and less distinct. “People’s ears are a lot more open, with Pop music overlapping into other forms and Pop music becoming more experimental.”

The technology explosion has actually expanded audiences for new music, says Bryce Dessner, artistic director of the Music Now festival

. “There is much more immediate access to creative music through online communities and blogs which have touched all corners of the music world including contemporary classical,” he wrote in an email.

Musicians have the tools and the means to write, develop, record and perform their work in ways that were not available to them even 15 years ago.” 

Music Now hosts the return of eighth blackbird in April for a series of concerts and workshops — following the sextet’s appearance with the CSO in January.

Yes, even the heavy hitter on Elm Street has done an about-face, enlisting no less than Philip Glass to oversee the “Boundless” series, five concerts that mix the familiar with new, such as Glass’ “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” and the “Cello Concerto.”

“I’m very excited,” says CSO cellist and concert:nova member Ted Nelson. “The new pieces really open things up for us as performers. Glass is important and this is important work.”

Haimovitz calls Glass’s concerto “one of the most beautiful 20th-century pieces I’ve heard.” The piece is based on Glass’ score for the film Nagoyqatsi, a Hopi word “life as war.”

“I found the music and the images of struggle incredibly moving, especially with all that’s going on in the world,” Haimovitz says, adding, “I hope the audience will keep an open mind.”

It’s always about being open to the new. And that implies a concept repeated by everyone with whom I spoke: trust between audiences and programmers, trust for the music and for an audience’s willingness to listen.

Matt Haimovitz sums it up best: “That’s part of my mission, building that trust with my music. I’m looking forward to playing the Glass but I also love to play Bach. If I’m passionate about it, you have to trust me and meet me halfway.”