Sunday, May 2, 2010

New maestro rethinks old tradition

Steven Smith, the new music director of the Richmond Symphony, believes that in order to survive in a new century, symphony orchestras need to branch out, but without severing their roots. That, he acknowledges, is a tricky bit of artistic ecology.

“Every community is different, with its own idiosyncrasies; so each orchestra has to look for its own possibilities to grow and thrive,” Smith said in a wide-ranging interview toward the end of a two-week introduction to his new orchestra, its patrons and artistic partners. “I like to hope that orchestras have a vital future, an important role in contemporary society. That means doing things differently – maybe a lot differently – in the future.”

However, “one of the strengths this orchestra has is its deep roots, long-standing ties. . . . Some of the same families involved in its founding are still involved today. So we need to build on those relationships, use those roots as a basis for moving beyond to plant new roots.”

In Richmond, Smith finds a town with an aesthetic and generational divide, a high-art establishment – symphony, opera, ballet, museums – coexisting, often uneasily, with contemporary and alternative art scenes. Established arts groups perform to mostly white audiences, largely middle-aged and older, while much of the city’s cultural energy is generated by younger people of varied ethnicity and cross-cultural interests who see and hear things differently, typically in different spaces.

The 50-year-old conductor has been here before, figuratively. For the past 11 years he has been music director of the Santa Fe Symphony, working in a multi-ethnic community with a long-established cultural and social hierarchy (older than Virginia’s – New Mexico’s capital was founded earlier than Jamestown) that in recent generations has become a center for contemporary art and music. Smith’s own artistic life straddles old and new: While mining music’s past as an orchestral concertmaster-turned-conductor, he also has been an active composer, contributing to music’s present and future.

As the first composer to assume artistic direction of the Richmond Symphony, Smith naturally is inclined to make modern and contemporary music an integral part of its concert programming. He arrives at a time when composers, especially in this country, are breaking free of the two styles, serialism and neoclassicism, that dominated art-music in the mid-20th century and alienated symphony audiences with knotty or arid sonic abstraction.

A third strain of modern composition, characterized by Witold Lutoslawski as “color” music, tracing its lineage to early 20th-century composers such as Debussy and Bartók, informs “a great deal of more recent music,” Smith observed, including the work of Jennifer Higdon, recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. The conductor also notes that “a lot of [currently active] composers are more closely connected with folk and popular music traditions,” prominent examples being Michael Daugherty, Osvaldo Golijov and Bright Sheng.

Surveying a compositional scene that’s “pretty wide-open” stylistically, Smith sees ample opportunity to bridge old and new, “to create programs that [show] connections between different eras and styles of music" without “demeaning enjoyment of the pieces” or appreciation of their value.

The newest of the new is a fast-evolving genre known as “alt-classical,” in which classical instrumentalists and singers frquently collaborate with theatrical artists and musicians from other genres. One of the leading exponents of alt-classical music and performance is eighth blackbird, the sextet that has been in residence at the University of Richmond for the past six years.

A 75-piece orchestra performing in a concert hall doesn’t fit easily into this scene, Smith acknowledged. “So we have to explore ideas of [spinning off] smaller ensembles, playing in alternative venues, taking off white tie and tails, creating different kinds of musical experience.”

And not just in new music. Much of the baroque repertory, and works such as serenades and divertimenti, were meant to be heard not in formal concerts but in more casual, social settings. Smith said he is open to performing in cabaret or “coffee” concerts, using spaces such as art galleries – he specifically mentioned the “fabulous new spaces at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”

The symphony orchestra, much of its most popular repertory, and the format in which it performs, are creations of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and seem increasingly artificial – even antithetical to most people’s notions of what a concert experience should be. Smith, who grew up listening to pop music and experiencing its theatricalized, personality driven, audience-participation performance ethos, is aware of how strange and alienating it can be for newcomers to classical music to listen silently in the dark to a stage full of identically attired, anonymous-looking performers playing long stretches of music without words.

“One of the struggles that orchestras are facing now, and will even more so in the future, will be reinforcing human contact” between classical musicians and listeners, he said. That human contact is key especially to drawing young listeners and those not previously exposed to symphonic music. “We have to understand that youth and ‘outreach’ concerts are maybe the only experience with a symphony orchestra that these audiences have had,” and should not be treated as sidelights of the orchestra’s work.

Orchestral collaboration with performers in other disciplines, especially dancers and actors, can add visual stimulation and more focused personality to classical music, “bringing more energy and enthusiasm into orchestra concerts. But simply trying to repackage our tradition [to] make it more ‘attractive’ doesn’t accomplish what we’re setting out to do,” Smith said.

“The better approach is to take aspects of the symphony tradition and remodel it. That may involve creating a sense of theater in a concert, or setting up dialogues between performers and the audience, in a concert-hall setting or in some alternative setting.”

In exploring the new and different, though, “we have to ask ourselves, do these elements enhance the musical experience?”