Ensemble gives the Cincinnati Classical scene a shot in the arm

If you ask a Classical music fan, they'll probably tell you there are generally two ways to group the immense volume of 400 or so years of Classical music: There's contemporary music ... and then th

If you ask a Classical music fan, they'll probably tell you there are generally two ways to group the immense volume of 400 or so years of Classical music: There's contemporary music ... and then there's everything else.

The "everything else" is the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The beautiful, melodic stuff you hear on the radio, at the ballet or concert hall or, often, on commercials. Classical music is great for instantly sparking emotion and passion in the listener. Why do you think Madison Avenue uses it to present products and services?

These strong feelings spill over into the categorizing of Classical music. Many fans of the "everything else" will tell you that the other Classical music — "Contemporary" or "20th century" as it's known — is decidedly unmelodic, atonal, sounds coming at you from everywhere, man.

Yes, well, the members of the ARC Ensemble, who I sat down with recently, don't quite see it that way.

"The Cincinnati Rock music scene is alive, doing well ... the Classical scene, well, it's stale," says Demetrius Fuller, music and artistic director of ARC (pronounced "ark" — as in Noah's Ark.) We're sitting in Fuller's apartment with two of the 12 or so core members of ARC: Emily Eagen, a singer with a mezzo-soprano voice, and Nancy Cahall, French horn. The three in attendance feel the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and other local Classical ensembles stick too much to the standard repertoire (the "everything else"), playing it over and over again. Many agree.

Fuller, Eagen and Cahall tell me that contemporary music and the Cincinnati public need a little help. There are two problems, you see. Contemporary music is different and the Cincinnati public has been underexposed to it — a recipe for negative impressions.

"Our mission statement is to perform and promote contemporary Classical music, and especially locally composed music," Fuller says. ARC feels an introduction is in order. New things, after all, can be scary.

ARC starts by making it a point to connect with the audience. Program notes handed out at the concert explain the music — where it's coming from, the context in which it was written, why it might sound so different. Eagen tells me, "We ask people to take a risk and come to a contemporary music concert. It's stuff you will be able to understand because of the program notes. They are a way into the music."

She adds, "It's not something to get your high culture card stamped because you went. It's something that has meaning to you and is relevant today. We want to get the audience hooked into it and make it relatable."

Above all, the group shoots for audience interaction by bringing the music to them in a fascinating way. Whether it's a combination of theater and music as with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (presented in English at this weekend's concert) or a collaboration of art and music as with a program in the works with the Contemporary Art Center, ARC is about presentation of the music and engagement of the audience.

But what about the bad things we've heard about contemporary music? Fuller sets me straight.

"We program 'contemporary' music, but guess what?," he says. "It's beautiful, tuneful music that happens to be written in the last 100 years." The members tell me this music has been unfairly neglected. "Even standard 20th-century repertoire ­ you just don't hear it," Cahall says. "There's so much great music that's not performed. We're bringing back a lot of the 20th-century standards."

"We don't program music without melody, sounds coming at you from everywhere — unless it has something to do with the theatrical or programmatic aspect of what we're trying to do," Fuller says.

Back to Eagen's point: Relevant and relatable.

ARC adds two other important dimensions into the mix: an intimate setting (the venues are quite small) and interaction between the musicians and the audience. Fuller makes sure there are musicians at the door greeting people on their way in and, at the end of the program, asking them what they thought of the concert. (You won't see that at a CSO concert.) Each performance will have a reception afterwards, too, so people can talk about the music, get their two cents in or just ask, "What the hell was that all about?"

They're also spontaneous and "whimsical," as Eagen puts it. Last concert, Fuller had the last minute idea to have Eagen, an international championship whistler, bring some music along to whistle to. The crowd loved it.

Cahall underscores one other important goal of ARC: Supporting local artists. The premieres on Sunday's program are from Cincinnati composer Tom Schneller. ARC wants to support local composers who are writing high-quality music.

"It's difficult for these people to get groups to play their music. They're hungry for groups like us," she says.

"We want to keep things fresh, moving and exciting," says Fuller. That's an understatement. The group told me of no fewer than four different plans in the works for collaborations with arts organizations in the area. And did I mention this is from a group that is less than four months old?

ARC also keeps things fresh by moving around. The concert on Sunday will be at Werner Recital Hall at the Corbett Center at CCM, but from there, they could go anywhere. Fuller runs down some potential venues: "Contemporary Art Center, Ensemble Theater, Aronoff Center ..."

One thing can surely be said for ARC: They have a lot of energy, a commodity that's just what the Cincinnati Classical music scene needs.

THE ARC CHAMBER ENSEMBLE perform Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Werner Recital Hall of the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Cincinnati.

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