The Swat Team: Can Orchestras Disrupt?

Can orchestras do lean? Can they be the musical equivalent of a Special Operations unit, dropping into strange spaces to project power in asymmetrical ways?  Can the great behemoths of classical music act as disrupters?  Let’s hope so.

Orchestras are, by definition, big institutions. Like an army, their scale offers unique powers and opportunities. Nothing competes with the sonic blast of a big orchestra, and there’s no canvas as huge as a symphonic piece. I love the gargantuan scale of the medium.

But times are a-changing, and orchestras are starting to deploy their musicians in intriguing, small-scale formats.  I’ve brought this approach to the Kennedy Center’s KC Jukebox series, which is a kind of ‘new music disrupter’ that takes a highly adventurous and experimental approach to concert presentation. In many of these concerts, we use a mix of musicians from the Center’s two orchestras alongside local players, and most of them appreciate the opportunities and challenges of working in an intimate and hip environment.  We let the audience roam free in most concerts, which are immersed in dynamic lighting and projected program notes.  People love coming up close to the instruments as they’re being played; it’s a different acoustic experience, it’s a different human experience.

Another example is the MusicNOW series at the Chicago Symphony.  It’s a great example of the Swat team approach: CSO musicians, often supported by local freelancers, bring to life one of the best new-music events in the country. Everything about MusicNOW is different from the mainstage identity of the CSO, from the sleek Harris Concert Hall to the production to the rep. The audience is different, too: a younger, more diverse crew than at Symphony Center. When I curated the series with Anna Clyne for many years, we felt that our experiments in concert presentation very much benefited the larger organization.  Given a leaner format, we could take more risks with, say, the music we chose or the way we designed the cinematic program notes.  The series is alive and well under Sam Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek.

Other orchestras are going lean and mean, notably the SF Symphony on its Soundbox series. Here you can watch, up close and personal, principle percussionist Jake Nissly perform the music of Christopher Rouse or Lou Harrison.  Isn’t it nice to see the percussion section escape the back of Davies Hall once in awhile? Or you can hear Robin Sutherland play Bach, a wonderfully crystalline experience if you’ve only heard him play within the SFS.

The LA Phil Green Umbrella and the NY Phil Contact! series fit into this trend, with the LA crew offering more traditional concerts in their home hall while the NY Phil gets out to National Sawdust.  The more old-school seated format is fine, but I think it’s most interesting when the lean-and-mean approach is paired with an imaginative rethinking of the concert experience, an ethic I’ve developed on my own Mercury Soul project.

Since 2008, we’ve been scattering chamber ensembles around clubs all over the country, integrating classical music into DJ sets and immersive production (here’s a nice overview of our recent show pairing baroque music with EDM). The point is to make the experience more social, with ambient information and videos replacing the stodgy program book. We’re careful not to lard up too much stimulus when the classical musicians are playing; we save the lasers and haze for the DJ segments. But it’s amazing how much more adventurous your programming can be when the format is more inviting.

Is there a downside to the Swat team approach?  After all, disruption does have consequences.  A recent lively discussion on Twitter pushed back on these efforts of orchestras to colonize new spaces. The thread went a number of directions. Some composers emphasized that orchestras shouldn’t use chamber events to alleviate any obligations to program new music on their symphonic series, a sensible argument to me.  From the local freelancers came the feeling of encroachment – ie, here comes the 800-pound gorilla trying to take over ‘our spaces,’ equipped with more funding and staff.  That one’s a bit more complicated.

No question: orchestras should perform more new music on their mainstage symphonic series, and the Swat team approach shouldn’t replace new-music programming.  That we can agree on.

As far as turf-invasion, I can understand the knee-jerk resistance to big institutions trouncing out into the field. Say you’re a local chamber ensemble that’s spent a lot of effort building a concert series, and here comes the big dog barreling into the neighborhood. I know that feeling because, as the founder of a small non-profit (Mercury Soul), I’ve seen several institutions use our format as a model. But honestly, it’s only good for the local music scene when more music happens, and anyway, the whole point is to change the field by example. Furthermore, no two series are going to be identical.  For example, Mercury Soul hits more of a literal club angle than SFS Soundbox, and we both enjoy a lot of audience overlap because people appreciate the different experiences.  We happily coexist.

Most importantly, we have to remember that orchestras are made up of people – local musicians, yes, who also like to let their hair down in different venues and formats. These people are all important members of the musical community, and in many cases they perform outside the concert hall very rarely.  I’m sympathetic to the concerns of some local freelancers who feel encroached, but I really believe that any music scene is better with more music.

The field is demanding that orchestras adapt to changing times and tastes.  So if they air-drop a special op’s unit into a club somewhere, let’s give them a chance.