Thinking tuxedoes with tails, velvet-roped aisles and predictable set lists—the status quo’s idea of a quiet evening at the orchestra? Well, forget everything you know. There is a classical concert world out there beyond the stodgy gala, where listeners can file into no-frills theaters in corduroy jackets and Converse All-Stars and tune their ears to sounds a la The Beatles-meet-Beethoven. This is what happens when New College of Florida meets the Sarasota Orchestra, when boundaries are shoved and preconceived notions about the listening experience are tossed. The college campus becomes the melodic playground. Onlookers rise from their seats in intimate venues. They shake to the notes. They whirl with the refrains. They laugh and learn with childlike openness. The setting is more akin to a Siesta Key drum circle than a sit-down, stay-silent ceremony.
Just because classical tunes are on the roster doesn’t mean the audience can’t rock out. Ask Maestro Leif Bjaland, the Orchestra’s artistic director, or Dr. Stephen Miles, the college’s associate professor of music. For seven years, the two pioneers have unleashed a cross-generational, cross-cultural dialogue of sound. Their mission: To attract young music fans to the Orchestra, draw older folks to the college and introduce Sarasotans to an avant-garde realm they might have otherwise missed.
Their cutting-edge programs, from the “Crossroads Project” to “New Music New College,” have brought professors, orchestra musicians and students together in concert. Students have gleaned advice from the pros. Pros have gathered tips from amateurs. And audiences have lived vicariously through the synergy. “I think any collaboration between indigenous arts organizations like ours is good for the cultural community in Sarasota,” Bjaland says. “I think we’re stronger together than we are apart. It stimulates the community and invites people to think about the arts in a much larger way.”
Big-picture thinking is what sparked the whole merger. As the state’s independent public honors college, New College is an institution that shucks the traditional grading system in favor of personalized evaluations. It is an academic haven where students receive their diplomas in sundresses instead of uniform caps and gowns and narrow-mindedness is checked at the door. The Sarasota Orchestra, too, prides itself on its progressiveness, being a leader in community outreach efforts and youth orchestra opportunities. It seemed only natural that these organizations would one day harmonize for the betterment of the city’s cultural atmosphere.
“Combining different disciplines, whether they be ballet and orchestra or orchestra and the visual arts—plus students at New College playing in a rock band—there’s something invigorating about that,” Bjaland says. “There are new metaphors that can be drawn and new excitement that can be created.” The college/orchestra alliance was created after Miles spearheaded New Music New College, a contemporary classical music series, ten years ago. September 2007 was proof positive that his brainchild has evolved into a must-see, when New College alum Silas Durocher performed on campus at the Sudakoff Conference Center to 400 spectators.
Bjaland was among them. During a 70-minute set, Bjaland eyed Durocher as he strummed the electric guitar, belted out a Paul McCartney-esque baritone and was accompanied by orchestra musicians Bharat Chandra (clarinet), John Miller (bass), Sasha von Dassow (cello) and Garrett Dawson (drums). Durocher’s melding of styles from Bartok to Weimar jazz to Jewish Klesmer to African and Middle Eastern awed Bjaland. At the show’s end, a slew of students actually broke out in a conga line, encircling the audience as the players cranked out an instrumental number. Bjaland was floored by the response and knew it deserved more than a fleeting glance. “This spontaneous writhing mass of humanity made me dream of some future mosh pit of Beethoven, Berlioz and Stravinsky,” Bjaland wrote a week later in a blog review. “The challenge for 21st century classical music is to match the exhilarating mix of great new material and superb execution in this performance.”
That’s what the college/orchestra movement is all about. No stone-faced ushers. No stuffy box seats. No binoculars. It’s a get-up-and-dance, shout-if-you-yearn-to, flutter-around-as-you-please sort of interactive extravaganza. If music is supposed to incite feeling and emotion, organizers say, why not express it right then and there? “A very important distinction to be drawn here is between the music and the rituals of traditional concert life,” Miles says. “The rituals of concert life are a little more formal than some people are used to, especially college students.”
The Durocher show tapped into that and Bjaland and Miles couldn’t refute it. It was a wild magic that could not have been harnessed in some regimented concert space, where sandals instead of polished black shoes were tapping feverishly on the carpet. It was the vehicle that spurred them to reconvene and plan future collaborations at Sudakoff (now whimsically referred to as “Club Sudakoff”) and the Mildred Sainer Pavilion. “The realization that we had such a young student talent like Silas in our midst drilled the whole project forward, so Steve and I started talking about what other interesting projects we might do,” Bjaland says. “We said, ‘Why can’t we do something with Silas, something based on one of these hybrid musical forms he experiments with? We really have something here.”
After all, Bjaland says, the United States will be flooded with different minority groups by the year 2050, and that influx is bound to produce more musical hodgepodges. Being on the cusp of a major shift is a point of real excitement for Bjaland and Miles. “Why not put together mutually exclusive musical pursuits like funk and rock and add in a string quartet?” Bjaland says. “Music is morphing all the time, so how can you create a musical event that’s based on that view of the world?”
In Bjaland’s mind, Durocher’s worldview was so innovative that it deserved more public exposure. Bjaland invited the 22-year-old to commission a work for the professional Orchestra to perform. This would be the foundation for the “Crossroads Project,” which has since been billed as a “surround sound” experience. It is certainly a privilege for a recent graduate and fledgling composer, and one that Bjaland and Miles hope will inspire other aspiring musicians. “This kind of a project is a way of deepening people’s relationship to different kinds of music and honoring the talent that’s already out there,” Miles says. “It’s a way of having this dialogue of musicians who work within the symphonic domain and students who work in a popular domain.”
Miles has gone one step further with the concept, enlisting three New College rock bands to partake in the “Crossroads” show, and having orchestra musicians “riff off of them.” One of these “riffers” would be Sarasota Orchestra tubist Jay Hunsberger. The bands on the ticket are: The Done For (a fusion group), Tyger Beat (a punk duo) and Skeleton Warrior (a “noise music” collective), all of which have studied experimental music with Miles. “We realized we could create an even stronger bond between New College and the Sarasota Orchestra and create a mini-festival, celebrating this idea of multi-culturalism,” Bjaland says.
And for the overall 2008–2009 season, multi-culturalism will emerge on the stage in a bevy of forms. Beginning September 6, New Music New College will launch the first of its five-part concert series in Sudakoff with pianist Kathleen Supové and composer/performer Corey Dargel’s production, “Removable Parts.” Cabaret-style seating will greet the musicians as they engage in a revue of original love songs about “voluntary amputation.” It will also be Supové’s third stand on the New College stage.
On January 30, Tampa cellist Scott Kluksdahl and pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera will present a recital they call “Radical Tradition,” which will contrast Ludwig Van Beethoven’s symphonies with those of contemporary composers Richard Wernick and Lowell Liebermann. On November 8, New College students will appear in a work entitled “Playspace,” an evening of experimental compositions that function as games and challenge conventional notions of performance and social interaction. It is an outgrowth of Miles’ Experimental Music Theory and Practice course. February 27 is the aforementioned “Crossroads,” in which the New College student bands and Orchestra musicians will converge in the college’s Caples Fine Arts Complex.
“Our students have gained tremendously from working with Orchestra musicians over the years,” Miles says. “Silas’ music represents this dialogical spirit. It’s a perfect example of how much of an impact mentoring from Orchestra musicians can have on students and ‘Crossroads’ celebrates that.” The “Crossroads” theme will continue on February 28, when Bjaland and Maestro Dirk Meyer will lead the orchestra in the concert “Crossroads: New Music Live,” at Holley Hall. It will showcase Durocher’s world premier composition, which he considers a reflection of the artistic and intellectual freedom he experienced as a New College music major. “Silas is part of a new generation of composers that draw on Bartok, The Beatles, ethnic music, rock and Ravel in equal measure,” Bjaland says. “His music is kaleidoscopic and tremendously exciting.”
The season will conclude on April 25, 2009, when internationally renowned composer Pamela Z will delight crowds in a display of original vocal works. She is best known for her solo style, which combines operatic bel canto and experimental vocal techniques with found percussion, spoken word, electronic processing and sample concrete sounds. “Unconventional notions of music have been put to the test in the laboratory of performance,” Miles says. “Together, we’ve challenged the boundaries that separate music and speech, music and theater and performer and audience, and we’ve found new ways to experience music.”
There’s always room for not rocking the boat, and for those who prefer a more traditional outing when it comes to stage, Sarasota is rife with alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with slipping on a pair of white gloves and a cummerbund and reveling in an untouched version of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concert No. 3.” But Bjaland and Miles agree there is much to be said for adding a little oomph to the age-old template and they are jazzed to be forerunners of the trend. When was the last time you did the conga at the orchestra? Brace yourself.
Talking Point “The challenge for 21st century classical music is to match the exhilarating mix of great new materials and superb execution in this performance.” —Leif Bjaland of New Music New College