In its fourth season as “The Orchestra Reborn,” Phoenix Orchestra proselytizes “social and accessible classical music experiences for all audiences.” To this busy concertgoer, though, “accessible” carries a whiff of tendentious. What ensemble can please “all audiences”? What and who are they talking about?
Before you even walk in to ART’s Club Oberon, you know that “accessible” and “social” mean “not in a concert hall.” No one’s a bigger fan than I of alt-venues, especially if one can have a decent beer at the same time, so this seemed all to the good last Tuesday (2/12). A red-shirted young woman’s “hello!” was so open and direct I assumed I must know her; a brief deflating and awkward moment followed as I realized she’s just being courteous. A lot of red-shirted young people hung out — eventually one figured that they are the orchestra. Phoenix is the youngest non-conservatory ensemble I think I’ve seen, not a grey hair in the bunch. Clearly accessible, those red uniforms made them easy to find when necessary. If this had been a Star Trek episode, it would have been a massacre. In this particular concert crowd, I had the unusual experience at 51 of feeling old.
This emphasis on meeting the musicians feels a little odd to me, but I am a musician myself, and I am married to a musician. Musicians are not necessarily fascinating people, but Phoenix suggests that just being around them is exciting. If you give up your email address you are entered in a raffle whose “prize” is to sit silently within the ensemble during the last piece. Brass players know this as “playing three-fourths of a classical symphony.” I sense no condescension or narcissism from Phoenix. They honestly seem to be seeking to connect to an audience for whom music-making is a bit foreign or exotic.
But accessible may mean for some, too easy to comprehend, too unthreatening—also, tonal, rhythmic, familiar. None of the nine short works lasted longer than 12 minutes. Four were in fact arrangements of movements from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, three for groupings of four or fewer, one tutti. The Bach presentation may have been helpful to those unfamiliar with the work, with themes briefly sounded and explanations of fugue and canon. But did these performances go beyond well-executed but isolated moments? The various movements didn’t speak to one another, nor did any illuminate any of its fellow works.
Except, perhaps, the opening piece, Jason Treuting’s Extremes, for four percussionists. Treuting is a member of So Percussion; in his tightly argued work a few musical ideas quickly lock into each other—so similar they must be imitative, but so intertwined one must hunt for the linking process. It was not Bach, but one can hear counterpoint in it, and goes seeking for it as it progresses. During its five brief minutes, one could certainly just groove out on the constant pulse.
Robert Honstein’s Conduitio is an orchestral work in three short movements. “Touch” starts with a light, rising and accelerating figure and repeats and transforms it with a masterly sense of development. An organic growth of intensity darkens and becomes heavier, almost threatening. “Pulse” performs similar magic on a slow, regular set of figures that gradually loose brilliance, a timbral decrescendo. “Send”, combines a piccolo bird call with a heavier bass groove that threatens, just slightly, to go out of control. Honstein’s deft hand with orchestral color and texture allows Conduit to evolve through constant subtle transformations that have their own internal logic and remain audible to the ear.
The most engaging of the remaining works, Clint Needham’s Urban Sprawl crashed together heavily rhythmic figures from popular music you already know (the slow section is a blues, of course,) but throwing them together with just enough chaos to keep your attention, as Needham channeled a high-brow Carl Stallings. Maria Finkelmeier (a Boston-based “percussionist, composer, educator, entrepreneur”) was the evening’s guest artist and her Daft and Gritty was the main work of the evening, and the longest, at 12 minutes. A collection of deft maneuvers organized around her work on the drumset, it constituted a reaction to Boston City Hall, to which she applies the adjectives in the work’s title, but it failed to coalesce into anything more than an attractive surface. She contributed the orchestra arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIV, notable mostly for weird marimba doubling of some of the lines. Anna Clyne’s A Wonderful Day dressed up a recording of a street musician with an orchestral halo. The recording is remarkable — the man sings his wistful song with a striking, plangent voice — but the additions are unnecessary. It is conceptually identical to Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, but without the patience or scale.
What exactly, then, does the “reborn orchestra” deliver? An easily digested evening to be sure: not only were the works short, but there were three intermissions. Surely some of that is to allow us to buy more drinks, to avoid stretching attention spans. Despite all of the exhortations from the stage to listen to what was being played, the environment worked against critical attention. Oberon may be a social space, but it is not musical: the acoustic is dry, and the strings were frequently inaudible. Amplified sounds (which I think included the surprisingly decent-sounding upright piano) always had more presence than the live performers. Music Director Matthew Szymanski let slip that the excellent players had convened for but three rehearsals. Their ability to play so much new music that quickly is a testament to their talent, but a generic quality to their sound may have come from the fact that these freelancers simply don’t work together very often.
Perhaps I’m not in the target outreach milieu. Make no mistake, though, the people around me exhibited much enthusiasm, responding with whoops and applause to every work. Yes, even to the sudden, solemn extinguishing of Bach’s voice in the Contrapunctus XIV.
During the intermissions, the PA played music for “all audiences” which made no demand on the listener. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” is a fine song, it tolerates close attention, but it was being played precisely not to be heard. I left Oberon in an odd mood; I had been to a party, it seemed, where the point was to make music unthreatening fun. For the lots of people who had a very good time, it served its purpose. Is that enough to bring the classical concert experience back from whatever ashes to which Phoenix imagines it is reduced?
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.