Putting It Together: Curating

You arrive at the concert hall just in time: the lights dim, the orchestra starts to tune, you shut down your digital life and settle in. Breathless from the hurry, you’re grateful for a few hours of sonic exploration.  So: who has curated the experience you are about to have?

If you are lucky, someone like Michael Tilson Thomas, a master of the black art known as curating.  My mind is on him after performing for several weeks at the SF Symphony, where I was the unknown half of yet another wonderfully provocative MTT set of programs, the Beethoven & Bates Festival. By marrying two related but divergent musics, Michael put both in greater relief. As he’s shown in continually new and adventurous ways over the years, curating a powerful classical experience is ever more essential in the 21st Century.  With that festival fresh in my mind, and with a new MusicNOW concert at the Chicago Symphony this month, it is high time to talk about curating.

And nope, I don’t mean ‘programming,’ which seems too one-dimensional, as if one is creating a mix-tape.  Let’s think of it more like DJing, with the entire experience crafted carefully and immersively. That curatorial approach has been the most wonderful part of my residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with composer Anna Clyne, with whom I’ve learned so much about the new horizons of concert presentation. It comes down to three words: content, production, and platform.

Those are not equal terms. Content, of course, reigns king, since the choice of music must guide all other elements. Ever been to a concert comprised entirely of post-indie rock minimalism? What about one with three different takes the spektral approach? Or perhaps a show where not a single piece includes standard notation? Yeah, me too.

Sure, it can be illuminating to attend a concert inhabiting one aesthetic, but it should be a rare event in my opinion, like a once-a-year “truffle dinner” or something. One of the great pleasures of a well-curated concert is how each piece shines light on the others, and often this happens when there is variety.

For example, often Anna and I search for an imaginative composer’s take on ambient music that can work between two dense pieces. We also think about what expressive spectrum a work inhabits. Process-driven pieces, from Boulez’s Sur Incises to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, often benefit from having a warmer aesthetic represented (such as the stunning Living Frescoes by Kevin Puts). Meditative works can range from the quietly revelatory (John Luther Adams’ The Wind in High Places) to West Coast zen (Lou Harrison). Of particular interest to us have been theatrical works, which often take the audience on strange adventures (Benedict Mason’s multimedia work Delta River opened this season’s MusicNOW series).  Ordering these becomes a part-intuitive, part-rational consideration of instrumentation, vibe, and extra-musical thematic relationships (which can create great synergies but can be overdone – I was once programmed next to Pines of Rome because I was living in Rome at the time – !).

The production part of the equation is rarely explored anywhere, but the Chicago Symphony has long been beautifully producing concerts as part of the amazing Beyond the Score series.  So the CSO was quite open to our suggestions about radically expanding the production of the MusicNOW series.

Anna has a sharp eye for multimedia, and I have an interest in smooth flow (cf: spinning records for three hours), so the resulting concerts are immersive and dramatic. The fancy lighting rig of Harris Theater is put to full use; program notes are cinematic, with video interviews of composers playing during set changes; and the concert flows naturally into the post-party, which features local artists. The stage management of the event is way more complex than your standard new-music event. We fill the formerly empty gaps of a concert with projected information, experimenting with new ways to educate the audience in a fun way.

As for platform? We partner with the local DJ collective illmeasures to provide the right kind of abstract, mellow electronica. It’s critically important that all the elements of the experience work together, so we ask for trippy downtempo and not cheesy house. These post-parties have become a wonderful new platform for the Chicago musical community, and it’s part of the reason these concerts bring upwards of a thousand people on a Monday night to hear new music. The festive post-party atmosphere adds social value to the whole experience, and it’s directly inspired by Maestro Riccardo Muti’s directive to take the deeper into the Chicago community.

The American impulse in classical music to better educate and communicate began with Leonard Bernstein, whose affable stage presence and forays into television made classical music more democratic. As Bernstein’s protégée, Michael has carried that to new and greater heights, including his stunning Keeping Score website & PBS specials, and his development of the ‘concert hall of the future’ in Miami.

But there are other great curators out there. Leonard Slatkin walked through the fire of Chapter 11 with the Detroit Symphony, rewrote the orchestral media contract from scratch, and is now broadcasting concerts weekly free concerts that look and sound stunning. Young guns are coming up too. Robert Moody, who conducts this month’s MusicNOW concert, has a knack for astonishing and fearless programming choices. Edwin Outwater is collaborating with composers on evening-long events that are in entirely new formats.

Classical music can harness more of the tools of the 21st Century to expand its reach and educate its audience. Let’s all keep open minds about the way we present it, keeping in mind that some of the biggest developments are happening outside New York. So, who’s curating your experience?