Four years ago, clarinetist Ixi Chen moved from New York to join the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and immediately began networking with other young professionals. There was a lot of enthusiasm for Chen’s work with the CSO but not for actually hearing her live — not even when she offered discounted tickets.
“I’m part of a list where new people in town write to each other, saying what they’re doing on a given night,” Chen recalls. “It was a blend of concerts, shows and plays, but never the symphony. So I started thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a way to bring the music to them outside of Music Hall.’ I couldn’t see continuing like this for another 40 years.”
Chen scheduled a brainstorming session that drew 15 musicians, and concert:nova was born. The group took inspiration from cellist Matt Haimowitz, a champion of new music who performs in concerts halls and Rock clubs and collaborates with leading conductors, Hip Hop artists and Klezmer musicians.
concert:nova’s goal is to make each concert an event through multimedia collaborations. According to Chen, the biggest challenge is taking on administrative responsibilities and being the performers.
As with most nascent organizations, a small group of performers took on the various administrative jobs and Chen assumed the role of artistic director. With concert:nova defining itself as a multimedia ensemble, there’s always been a sense of occasion for every performance since its debut in October 2007 in a former car factory that featured a visual installation above the performance space.
Since then, the group has collaborated with local photographers, actors, visual and video artists, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Ballet, the Contemporary Arts Center and Know Theatre and performed cutting-edge and rarely-heard contemporary works at Below Zero nightclub, Know Theatre, an elementary school, galleries and private homes. Smaller venues are crucial, says Chen, “because we want to restore the intimacy of Chamber music. The audience is as much a part of the experience as the performers.”
For its third season opener, concert:nova joins forces with light sculptor Tony Luensman and video artist Charles Woodman for Playing With Light, a typically eclectic program featuring works by George Crumb, Arvo Part, George Tsontakis and the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis.
The fusion of sound, light and imagery offers music ranging from ethereal vocal harmonies to re-imaginings of whale songs and virtuoso turns for percussion instruments, accompanied by light sculpture and video created specifically for each piece.
Crumb’s work is a synthesis of theater, electronics and literary inspiration, making it ideal for the concert:nova ethos.
“Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale”) is scored for piano, flute and cello; set in three movements, it includes detailed instructions for the performers to wear masks in order to project nature’s dehumanization.
And the music itself sounds different.
“The piano has to be prepared,” Chen says. “Julie Spangler plays the strings with a chisel and a glass rod.”
The performance includes Woodman’s video and Crumb’s lighting instructions realized by Luensman. Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s “Raintree” also specifies lighting cues for the three percussionists: “At any given time, a spotlight will go on or off the musicians so that their parts literally become illuminated.”
Ancient rituals are brought to life in André Jolivet’s “Chant de Linos,” scored for flute, strings and harp, and Woodman sets his video against the harmonies, “creating a tension and resolution into symmetry — or asymmetry,” according to Chen. Prt’s haunting “Fratres for Strings” is grounded in the melismatic lines of Gregorian chant and Tsontakis’ “Gymnopedies” recalls Erik Satie’s iconic work.
Medieval chants and a choral anthem by Tallis bookend the program, accompanied by Luensman’s lighting designs suggesting sunrise and sunset. (A post-concert party encourages the audience to meet the performers and comment on their experience.)
The innovative collaborations and ambitious programming strategy of concert:nova, to bring the music into more accessible venues pays off by attracting precisely the audiences Chen couldn’t get into Music Hall. As much as 70 percent of the audience is under the age of 40, according to concert:nova’s board chair, John Spencer, who adds that the group presents a viable business and artistic model for the preservation of Classical music.
Spencer says the musicians and collaborators are what make the group’s projects so enticing.
“These people play the music brilliantly, and it’s tough stuff,” he says. “They’re passionate about it and you can feel it when they play. And what they play is modern and it’s traditional.
“Adding the visual and performing arts is critical. We live in a multimedia world. Younger audiences relate to this kind of presentation and more and more musicians are programming this way.”
A Classical music concert might not often be described as “fun,” but concert:nova changes the “stuffy” stereotypes.
“It’s just different,” Spencer says. “You can actually see the interplay between the musicians, and there really is communication. And then the audience can stick around and meet the musicians. Where else does this happen?”
Not in Chicago or San Francisco. And, according to native New Yorker Spencer, not even in New York.
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