The birth of an ensemble is hardly rare in this cultural mecca, but it’s not every week, or every year even, that we get to be present for the birth of a new orchestra. Apparently, we’re all invited to get to know the 30 musicians of Phoenix Orchestra in a social setting of 120 seats—mostly at tables with tinkling glasses—“and experience the launch of a new kind of concert! There’ll be fantastic music, great drinks, and lots of chances to meet the players behind the stands.” Conductor/President Matthew Szymanski has fashioned an ensemble of post-conservatory freelancers (10 of whom come from the late lamented Discovery Ensemble) who will debut with serious repertoire and low-set hurdles at Club Oberon on March 24th. Our questions for Matt elicited some flavor of this new endeavor.
LE: Phoenix proposes to “attract an audience by offering something new and exciting and embrace its members by providing an open, welcoming atmosphere as well as exceptional music.” We need specifics.
MS: We try not to boil ourselves down to a list, but since you asked…. It’s hard to overstate how important the attitude and personality of every musician involved are to making this work. Every person in the orchestra was handpicked as both a person and a musical talent.
– Musicians in casual dress.
– Playing in venues that naturally create a more open atmosphere.
– Musicians greet audience members at the door on the way in and on the way out.
– Musicians are in the auditorium between sets of music to get to know the audience.
– Drinks served at every event.
– Choreographed performances (musicians standing during solos and interjections, nothing too fancy!)
– Seating around tables to provide a social atmosphere.
– Lighting effects to highlight musical mood changes.
– Interactive moments. A good example would be the seats inside of the orchestra at our launch event, Ignite. Those will be raffled off during the event!
– Seats for the audience inside of the orchestra.
– Program notes that explain the historical and personal significance of the pieces we play in layman’s terms.
– Allowing people to use their phones (silently) during events.
– Mixing traditional pops repertoire (movie soundtracks, video game music, transcriptions of popular music) with your normal serving of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, as well as contemporary music.
Performing orchestral music in a roomful of revelers is not a new concept—the Boston Pops has been doing that since before any of us were born. What’s different about your approach?
Something we’re really excited about at Phoenix is the level of interactivity we’ll have with our audience. The split between time spent playing music and time spent getting to know audience members at our Ignite event will be something close to 50/50. For the audience that means they’ll spend just as much time listening to amazing music as they will getting to know amazing people. The musicians will be able to talk about why this music is important, what vibrato is, what it’s like to travel with a cello, anything you want to learn.
How will you deal with the distractions and poor acoustics of club venues? What’s it going to sound like at Club Oberon?
The acoustics at Oberon are actually very good. We had a chance to get in there and preview the sound when we recorded the video for our Kickstarter campaign and came away impressed. What’s great about Oberon are the amazing opportunities it affords us to be close to our audience in the atmosphere we want to create. The open seating plan allows the audience to be on the same level as the orchestra, creating a visceral experience. The bar is essential to the atmosphere, as is the full complement of dynamic lights available.
Everything that Phoenix is doing is meant to attract attention to the music rather than diminish it. It’s actually become a kind of company credo. Things like lighting effects and choreography are meant to highlight musical moments that might otherwise go unnoticed. Put simply, we’re dealing with distractions by creating an experience people will want to pay attention to.
Are the players all invested in this project? I note that the Matthew Szymanski is both CEO and conductor. Is the administrative staff larded with players?
A passion for Phoenix’s mission is an absolute prerequisite for everybody in the ensemble. When I started putting together the ensemble I was keenly aware that this project would require a unique group of people to succeed. The team we’ve put together at Phoenix is so multifaceted it still blows me away every day. Most of the players are also involved in the administration in some capacity, whether it be as a librarian, working on public relations, or events management. Having musicians involved in the administration is important to the spirit of the organization as a whole. It gives the players ownership over the product and helps the orchestra be a more complete reflection of the individuals that make it up. Much like tearing down the barrier between orchestra and audience, we’re also trying to tear down the barrier between musicians and administration. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for the administrative structure of the orchestra, but I’m excited about where we’re starting.
It’s not common to be present at the birth of an orchestra. Tell us about the works you chose for the day of your hatchment.
One of the things I love about our first program is its variety. By starting with Gabrieli and Golijov, we stretch over 400 years of music in the first 10 minutes of the program. Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 is an absolute riot. It’s perfect for the atmosphere we’re playing in and a great example of how funny even classical era composers were capable of being. The Pärt is the really bold choice of the night. We didn’t just want to cater to a casual atmosphere with every piece. Fratres is a captivating ode to stillness. It’s subtle, but mesmerizing. To us it’s sort of a marking post that says, “If we can play this, at Oberon, in the atmosphere we want, with a new audience, and pull it off, we’re doing something right.”
You have a second concert planned for May but your website doesn’t say what you’re playing or where. How about giving BMInt a scoop?
I can tell you that, in a way, a lot of the snippets of pieces of the Ignite program are hints at what’s to come. Other than that, you’ll have to attend to find out! We’ll be revealing more details there.