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Attacking the Invisible Wall

The final 8 Days in June standing O (one among many) for maestro Peter Oundjian and the ladies and gentlemen of the Detroit Symphony

It was Peter Oundjian who brought it up. He was on the stage of Orchestra Hall just prior to the final concert of the DSO’s 8 Days in June extravaganza. He and Tom Allen were talking over the sophomore year of 8 Days, when Peter pointed out how crucial it was to break down the invisible wall between the performers and the audience.

Then Tom actually leapt through that wall, taking a microphone into the pre-concert crowd like a latter day Phil Donahue, and we were off. Here was the real payoff of 8 Days.

More than the music, though the performances I heard were uniformly thrilling.

More than the programming, though there was plenty of adventure in that department (Glass, Messiaen and Cage? In the same week?).

More even than the deliciously casual, free-flowing atmosphere filled with newcomers of all ages, which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.

More than all of that, it was this deliberate thrust to consistently and directly engage the audience that puts this festival into a very special category indeed.

Case Study No 1: Schnittke Happens

On Saturday night’s program, following Mendelssohn’s brilliant Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, up comes a quirky modern piece called (Not) a Midsummer Night’s Dream by Alfred Schnittke. In a pre-8 Days world, hearing this kind of thing cold turkey would empty large sections of Orchestra Hall. Not this time.

Out come Tom and Peter, not with a lecture on atonality and the influences of the Second Viennese School, but with the simple statement that we should expect “a lot of wrong notes.” It makes all the difference. The thing is a spoof. Now that we’re all in on the joke, instead of uncomfortable fidgeting once the music starts to go off the rails, the audience actually laughs out loud. We get it. And a load of bricks are dislodged from that invisible wall.

Case Study No. 2: Cage Match

Last April Fool’s Day, Tom Allen on his CBC morning show held a Cage Match of competing performances of 4’33″ by John Cage, a notorious piece wherein the musician is totally silent. Well, on Day 6 Tom got the chance to participate in a real contest when the festival presented Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, a typically unconventional composition featuring overlapping excerpts of texts by Henry David Thoreau. True to form, the element of chance underlies the composition by design, so that no two performances are alike.

At intermission there is a spirited discussion over what was heard including a couple of patrons who “just didn’t like it at all.” And then they performed it again. The whole piece. And sure enough it came out differently. This time our disappointed patrons actually liked the piece. And another load of bricks fell out of the wall.

Now the point here is not that anyone was “converted” to modern music. The real gem of this incident, and the festival’s gold standard of success, is that here was an audience that felt comfortable enough (and safe enough) to actually say out loud that they didn’t like something. In front of the people who played it.

That’s why when I asked Tom for some of his post festival impressions, he told me without hesitation that the real star of 8 Days In June was the community of listeners that emerged around the concerts.

“Every night there were more interesting and insightful comments, every concert brought the ideas, the musicians and the people listening a little closer together. The lines that have traditionally kept great music at a distance from the people who love it are growing fainter and fainter, and the wonderful 8 Days audience is telling us to keep going further in that direction. That means bright things ahead!”

And the wall came a tumblin’ down.


Related Stories:

8 Days in June fest a chaotic success, by Mark Stryker; Detroit Free Press; June 23, 2008

Orchestra’s ’8 Days’ festival a mix of fun, insight, by Lawrence B. Johnson; Detroit News; June 23, 2008

(From The Well-Tempered Wireless)

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1 Day in June

Friday, June 13, 2008. Opening night of the Detroit Symphony’s 8 Days in June festival. It was a blast last year. Would the magic be back tonight?

Initial indications were promising. For people-watching, it was a target rich environment. From club wear to polo shirts over jeans, from Saville Row suits to Hawaiian shirts and Birkenstocks and just about everything in between, it all contributed to the pre-concert buzz in the atrium of the Max Fisher Music Center. At the box office a line of ticket seekers grew until it snaked onto Woodward Avenue. So far, so good.

As you enter Orchestra Hall, you’re welcomed by beaming t-shirt clad ushers who, like the musicians warming up on stage, have ditched the formal wear. Casual Friday returns to the Max. Another good sign.

Now the music begins and it’s time for the promise to be kept. Could lightning strike again?

Long before the end of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, I had my answer. As that miraculous fugal finale unwound in front of me, the adrenalin coming off the stage was seeping into the audience, culminating in a roar of appreciation as we headed to intermission. In the second half, Holst’s The Planets was dazzling, a tour de force for a great orchestra in a great hall.

Following another thunderous ovation, a glowing crowd poured into the atrium to keep the party going to the infectious world music rhythms filling the Max Fisher Music Center.

The reviews in The Detroit News and Free Press, while giving generally high marks for the DSO’s performance, took issue with how successfully the “Power of Change” theme of the festival was working. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch, but for me that’s not important.

What I saw in a packed Orchestra Hall Friday night, taking up most of the row in front of me, was a group of 20-somethings decked out for a fun night coming to hear Mozart.

I heard one mature couple behind me making conversation with another that “hadn’t come down here in years.” Maybe now there won’t be as much time between visits.

I saw a pre-teen red-headed boy who could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting pick two seats right in the front row, where he and his younger brother stared in rapt attention at every move maestro Oundjian made, for the entire concert.

To all those concerned about the future of classical music in this country, these are powerful signs that it is alive and well in Detroit.

There are 7 Days in June left. Come as you are. Sit where you like. But whatever you do, don’t miss it.

(From The Well-Tempered Wireless)

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Getting Jiggy with the DSO

Seems like the modern symphony orchestra has always been grappling with the challenge of attracting younger concertgoers without alienating their loyal but aging core audience. Sometimes these attempts show promise, sometimes not so much. But in today’s Detroit Free Press, music critic Mark Stryker called the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 8 Days in June festival

” . . . that rare example of an orchestra trying to be hip and mostly pulling it off with natural flair and true adventure.”

And pull it off they sure did. Last year’s inaugural festival was extraordinary. Adventurous programming was a big part of it, but for me at least as important was a host of welcome changes that seemed to blow untold decades of cobwebs out the roof of Orchestra Hall.

The orchestra had ditched the penguin suits for tasteful (and I’m sure more comfortable) black shirts and slacks. The attendees in the audience were a stimulating mix of hip-hop, Gen X, and urban funk mingling with the regular clientele. Seating was more open, allowing groups to gather spontaneously as they met.

As festival host Tom Allen took the stage to contextualize the music, the atmosphere was giddy with excitement and anticipation.

What followed blew the lid off the place.

Led by maestro Peter Oundjian, the concerts were electrifying. The crowds were fully engaged and the whole experience was so totally vibrant it made me fervently hope it could spill over into the rest of the season. This is what concertgoing was meant to be. Not a reverent homage to a dusty, long-gone past, but a living exaltation of the human creative spirit.

And it’s coming back, starting Friday. Fantastic!

(From The Well-Tempered Wireless)

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