Roll Over Beethoven: Not Your Grandma’s Symphony Concert

Mike Lawson • Uncategorized • July 17, 2018

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Around the country, American orchestras are expanding their programming to include a variety of genres, styles, and formats beyond the traditional European “canon” of orchestral music (think Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and the rest of the boys).

This trend is not new – symphony orchestras have presented concerts of “light classics” and “pops” repertoire for generations – but in recent decades the range of music a professional orchestra might put on stage has broadened considerably.

There are a variety of reasons for this redefinition of what music one might encounter at symphony hall, but at the heart of this movement are symphony orchestras striving to become more relevant and accessible to the communities they serve, and to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience.

The Nashville Symphony is at the forefront of this trend, presenting a more diverse array of concerts and presentations at their home Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Music City than nearly any other orchestra in the country.

“We’ve always done a certain amount of popular programming,” says Alan Valentine, president & chief executive officer of the Nashville Symphony. “From the beginning we’ve programmed artists that sing with the orchestra, crooners, instrumentalists… but when we opened Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2006, we knew we had to expand our programming.

“Our first thought was to do things that would sound great in the hall. So, we brought in groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo – the hall is great for singing – and touring orchestras like The Cleveland Orchestra and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. We were still doing a lot of popular programming – pops concerts, our jazz series, specials, presentations – but we wanted to go further. We asked ourselves ‘What sounds best in the hall? What is nobody else doing?’

“The Nashville Symphony has an intentional focus on contemporary American music,” said Valentine. He described how the orchestra’s former music director Kenneth Schermerhorn, who directed the Nashville Symphony from 1983 until his death in 2005, had a special affinity for the music for the music of 20th Century American composers, and how this guided the orchestra’s artistic identity over the last several decades. The Nashville Symphony not only performs new music by American composers regularly but also records it for Naxos. They have been nominated for 24 Grammy awards for these recordings and have won 13 times.

“Nashville is the place where uniquely American music is created, performed, recorded, and promoted to the world.” he said. “With this in mind we began to expand our programming in a variety of ways, and this gave rise to the idea of being open-minded, and to embracing the local music community as well.”

This embrace of the local community has led to the Nashville Symphony’s collaborations with and commissions for many local musicians, such as Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Victor Wooten, and Ben Folds. All of these contemporary artists – in the case of Fleck, Wooten and Folds known for their work in other musical genres not classical – have written concertos and performed them with the Nashville Symphony.

“I really love how the Nashville Symphony brands itself as ‘your’ Nashville Symphony,” says assistant conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez. “Our wide variety of programming is designed to engage with audiences and areas of the community that would not otherwise be attracted to a traditional symphonic concert. Our goal is to make symphonic music accessible. It’s not a stagnant art form, but a musical institution that is ever changing and adapting. We try to grow and change to meet the desires and tastes of our community.

“This week is a perfect example. On Wednesday, we perform a classical concert: Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, and movements from symphonies by Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Friday we play a concert with Felix Cavaliere and The Rascals: about twenty charts of classic rock’n’roll with a rock band and orchestra. The very next day we’ll play an outdoor amphitheater concert of classic songs from Disney movies with singers and projected video. This is a pretty typical week!”

In addition to pops concerts collaboration, and “crossover” concerts, many orchestras now program movie concerts: a screen is hung above the stage and the orchestra performs the entire score in real time as the movie is projected. These events are immensely popular with audiences of all ages, and the movie studios are making more and more films available for this kind of performance every year.

Many films with music by John Williams are being performed this way already by orchestras across the country including E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Home Alone. All eight Harry Potter films are being performed this way over a four-year period right now by a select group of symphony orchestras, and the Star Wars films make their debut in this format this summer.

Symphony orchestras performing with iconic rock bands is in some ways simply an extension of the “pops” symphony concert to feature popular artists of younger generations than the balladeers and crooners traditionally presented at these shows.

Brent Havens, a Berklee-trained arranger and conductor, has taken the concept a step further. Havens, who has written music for orchestras, feature films, and virtually every kind of television, has been producing his now-famous “The Music of” concerts with orchestras around the world since 1995. In these concerts, singers and a top-notch rock band join the orchestra on stage to perform a dedicated concert of music by a single iconic artist or band.

“I first heard about Brent Havens more than twenty years ago,” said Valentine, “when he produced a ‘The Music of Led Zeppelin’ concert in Virginia Beach. I didn’t initially think it would work! People think it’s the name of the artist that sells tickets – like Taylor Swift, or Yo-Yo Ma – that the audience comes to see and hear the performer. But in fact, it’s the music itself that sells the tickets!

“These ‘The Music Of’ shows became a big driver in helping us stay financially viable and to improve our bottom line, as well as attracting new, nontraditional symphony orchestra audiences. We did some research on where our classical concerts ticket buyer made their first point of entry to the symphony community as patrons – what were the first concerts here that they bought tickets to? – and what we found goes directly against the conventional wisdom in our industry, which is that symphony audiences don’t cross genre lines. Supposedly classical audiences only attend classical concerts, pops audiences only attend pops concerts, etc. But we found this isn’t true! A significant number of our classical ticket buyers first came to the symphony to hear Foreigner, for example!”

Up to the point when Brent Havens wrote the show that became “The Music of Led Zeppelin” for a local promoter in Virginia, he had been writing film and television scores. A friend asked him to put together a Led Zeppelin show but had previously conceived of it as an all-orchestral program performed by a symphony orchestra with traditional instrumentation. “But I thought: who’s the audience?” said Havens. “Led Zeppelin fans have been listening to this music for decades, they know it so well! And that is who we are going to attract to this concert – not the usual symphony-goer.” So he wrote charts for many of the band’s greatest hits for a hybrid ensemble that including a rock band performing alongside the symphony. “We did it with the studio musicians I had been working with at the time.”

Although initial performances in Virginia and Atlanta were successful, “The Music of” concept did not catch on with the rest of the industry immediately. “It took us a good eight years of doing about two or three show a year before the demand really began to grow.”

Now Havens’ Windborne Music produces show all over the United States and beyond, with three touring crews of versatile rock musicians who can play any style. These musicians travel to supplement the orchestras that hire them to put on concerts: “The Music of” not only Led Zeppelin, but also David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and more. “The Music of Queen” is one of their most popular concerts, alongside the Led Zeppelin show. “Queen’s music is already so operatic and orchestral in conception, it lends itself so well to being played by an orchestra,” said Havens.

Havens’ charts stay very close to the original musical material, but reassign some parts played by guitars, keyboards, and other instruments on the original recordings to take advantage of the brilliant palette of musical colors provided by the orchestra. “I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you do interpretations?’ but I wanted our arrangements to be authentic,” he said. “These fans know this music inside and out. They should recognize the song within the first three or four notes. At our concerts, the audience is on their feet, singing along and dancing.”

“The Music of” concerts attract a new and intergenerational audience to symphony concerts. “At first, orchestras would program our shows for Tuesday or Wednesday nights, and in some markets, we still do that. But we have found that these shows are more successful on the weekend. During the school year, concerts earlier in the week are on school nights, and lots of parents want to bring their kids! Their son is taking guitar lessons, or their daughter is taking singing lessons, or they want to share with their children the music they loved when they were growing up. Many families attend our shows together, and young people are being introduced to the symphony orchestra through these concerts.”


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