The good news is that Phoenix, the stylish new young chamber orchestra dedicated to “revitalizing the presentation of orchestral music for modern audiences,” bears little in-person resemblance to the pool party babes and dudes of their hilariously campy promotional video [here]. One might infer from their splashy branding that their goal is to prove that orchestra music is sexy, or from their detailed mission statement that their goal is to disprove a number of the slurs (or insecurities, depending on who you are) that are regularly hurled at the classical music edifice: elitist, snobbish, uptight, boring, dull, etc. Their inaugural event, “Ignite,” at Club Oberon on Tuesday was, in my experience, far more down-to-earth than earth-shattering. Phoenix is a group of cheerful, talented, mildly nerdy young musicians who love playing and who love sharing their music with a happy, supportive crowd. Wildly innovative? No (or, at least, not yet). Thoroughly enjoyable? Yes.
A good portion of the evening was devoted to mingling, getting drinks, and hanging out; the musical content was presented in five “sets” between which Oberon easily provided the social atmosphere of a crowded bar (albeit one in which a flute or violin was wont to show up in your neighbor’s hands). When the lights dimmed and the spotlights came on, I realized the dirty secret of the evening: people like to sit quietly, in a comfortable seat in the dark, and drink, and listen to music. And for me at least, this is a great formula—I like going out to bars but often get overwhelmed by an entire evening of shouted conversations and constant high-wattage stimuli; I like going to symphony concerts but often get antsy at the lack of connection with the sea of faces around me. I have a feeling, like the Phoenix folks undoubtedly did, that there are a lot like-minded souls out there.
Phoenix’s repertoire choices (conductor Matthew Szymanski, I gathered, is mostly responsible for the group’s artistic direction) were pleasant, reasonably diverse, and appropriate to the venue—a personable bunch of works painted in broad strokes. Szymanski showed a keen ear for pops—and I mean this literally, as a sense of what ingredients, in any era of repertoire, jump out and say “hey, listen to me!” Giovanni Gabrielli’s Canzone in Double Echo, the evening opener, offered the tried-and-true “instrumental families of the orchestra” (otherwise known as “battle of the bands”) showcase, with three small groups of brass, winds, and strings respectively playing antiphonally across the upper balcony. A direct segue into an excerpt from Osvaldo Golijov’s nonet Last Round, a characteristically blood-thumping, tango-infused work full of juicy slides, provided a chance for some hair-flinging, bow-slinging action. (If this projection of abandon, along with some deliberate hoots and hollers form the audience, seemed cultivated, I wasn’t too bothered—Phoenix is nothing if not transparent about their intentions.)
The full, gutsy group sound that was hinted at in Last Round is not an easy thing to achieve in the dead acoustic of Oberon, but it actually blossomed quite nicely in the evening’s centerpiece, a string orchestra version of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. This piece was described to me by a bassist, as well as by Szymanski in last week’s interview, as being the most challenging of the evening. Whether or not it was challenging to execute, the effect was organic, growing out of the stillness that followed the crowd’s settling down, building steadily and carefully to a rich climax, and fading away with equal aplomb.
The rest of the show consisted of Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, broken into two segments (movements I and II, then movements III-VI, surrounding Fratres and hobnobbing time), and a final grouping of hits, Grieg’s Holberg Suite Rigaudon and Peer Gynt “Solveig’s Song” along with one of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances—this last made me wish for all six, an arrangement which I unabashedly love and that channels just the sort of heart-on-the-sleeve energy that seems like Phoenix’s jam. In the symphony, Szymanski and the orchestra played to Haydn’s broad humor, with the wind section literally popping up in their slow-movement fanfare interruptions, dramatic drops in dynamics, and a moment of spectacular “out of tune” dissonance in the finale (Haydn’s idea, of course). Side note: I was unfamiliar with this symphony, and a little research revealed that it was actually drawn from incidental music that Haydn wrote for a play, Le Distrait, featuring an absent-minded main character. Phoenix didn’t offer any printed notes or descriptive introductions; in the future, such tidbits could be amusing and not (God forbid) didactic or stuffy.
Perhaps the cleverest, most off-the-cuff yet natural idea of the evening came in two unannounced interludes, a flute duo and a solo violin, which served, in place of flickering lights or loudspeaker announcements, to regroup the audience’s attention after two of the mingling breaks. The second impromptu performance, before the final set, featured violinist Zenas Hsu’s spectacular rendition of H. W. Ernst’s flamboyant vignette “The Last Rose of Summer” in the middle of the mezzanine (luckily I had some enthusiastic NEC violinists at my table to identify it). This was truly the perfect setting for cheeky violin acrobatics: unabashed showmanship peppered with appreciative hoots throughout. I actually don’t complain too often about classical music taking itself too seriously. But when I do, the target of my ire is likely to be a fluffy violin showpiece passed off as evidence of good musicianship. (I remember once, in grad school, showing up for string seminar after winter break to—surprise!—an all-Sarasate studio recital. I’ll take my violin showpieces with a shot of whiskey in a club over that any day, and admire the player more for it.)
All this goes to show that yes, classical music can be played at a club. I have a feeling that nobody present—my random sampling revealed NEC faculty, students, mentors, and groupies; friends, family, SOs, and a few barista colleagues of the musicians—particularly needed to be convinced of this fact. (Overheard during Hsu’s solo performance: “Omigod, I have to play that piece on my jury next semester!” “On cello? Fuck!”)
Can Phoenix, with its bright colors, sexy videos, and avid backers from the NEC community, reach its target audience? I never got a concrete answer as to who’s the targeted, other than the vague “people who might otherwise not come to a classical concert, because, you know, they might be intimidated or not feel like dressing up.” I’m sure those people are out there, though, and I hope Phoenix figures out how to reach them. The Bay Area’s Classical Revolution series and our own burgeoning Groupmuse scene seem to have done so, and hey—all those people watching “Mozart in the Jungle” seem to have caught on too. Phoenix is enthusiastic, fun, and willing to look a little silly in the attempt. And Pärt, Bartók, Haydn, and all the other people on the group’s program are awesome. Can’t argue with that.