Times Article – Hendrix, Hard Liquor and Headsets: The New Orchestra Rules

Posted on August 30, 2016

Before the autumn concert season, The Times look at ten ways in which classical groups are changing their tune

NEWS Times Article

Orchestras can play anything

One of the most unlikely hits of 2016 has been the Manchester Camerata’s Hacienda Classical, a tribute to the city’s Eighties and Nineties club-thumping scene in which the 70-strong orchestra dispatched Happy Mondays’ classics to huge and mildly crazed audiences (and a five-star review in The Times).

Hacienda Classical toured 20 venues round the UK, playing to 40,000 people. It’s quality that matters, not genres, says the group’s chief executive, Bob Riley. “I challenge anyone who says that the [Hacienda] isn’t amazing music — it is. It meant absolutely everything to those people when they were [originally] experiencing it and it clearly did again this year.”

The Manchester Camerata’s Hacienda Classical concerts were a tribute to the city’s club scene

Next year the Camerata season begins with the concert From Haydn to Hendrix, bookending traditionally classical repertoire with arrangements of Hendrix’s Purple Haze and the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

Audiences want to hear everything

The magpie-ish London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) was founded in 2008 by conductors Robert Ames and Hugh Brunt and won best ensemble at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music awards in 2015. It also features on Frank Ocean’s new album, Blonde. “Tastes in music are more diverse than ever,” says Ames. “Today I have listened to Aphex Twin, Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven, Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin, Radiohead and a load of Thomas Tallis.” Challenging an audience’s expectations, he says, entices new audiences, while “orchestras in traditional formal settings are struggling to be heard”.

Over in Liverpool, meanwhile, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) has linked the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band into a season-long series on “Revolution”, folding the Fab Four in with Beethoven, Bach and Berlioz. The Beatles’ seminal album will be given the full symphonic treatment. Whether in 50 years the same thing will happen to Ed Sheeran’s body of work remains to be seen.

The revolution will be digitised . . .

You’ve always wanted to be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen — but you ballsed-up Grade 5 violin so joining the Philharmonia isn’t a feasible goal any more. Relax. As part of a “digital takeover” of the Royal Festival Hall next month, the Southbank-based orchestra will be demonstrating a “360-degree, 3D video and audio performance” that you take in a via virtual-reality headset, free to any interested visitors. In other words, as the Philharmonia’s departing managing director, David Whelton, explains, “You are getting the players’ experience, not just the audience’s. Esa-Pekka is conducting you.” But without the tongue-lashing when you come in five bars late.

. . . and democratised

The Philharmonia is no stranger to digital innovation. Whelton says that 170,000 people, adults and children, have experienced its “iOrchestra” project in the southwest, a series of installations that let you play an instrument or become a conductor by “conducting” audio samples through your body and to the person who you’re standing next to.

Orchestras cannot continue to live in their ivory towers

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), meanwhile, is live streaming of its more laid-back concert series, The Night Shift, as its chief executive, Crispin Woodhead, explains: “People can hop in, interact at home, they can say what they think on social media.” Or just order a pizza during the boring bits.

Play to people on the sofa . . .

If you can experience an orchestra from all sides via a VR headset, it’s only a matter of time before you can have a full concert series without even needing to leave the house — or get dressed. “Like all technology, it will get cheaper,” says Whelton, “and you’ll have VR at home with all your friends.” For Whelton, however, “nothing can substitute for the live experience . . . The reason why we’re here is the communication between player, composer and audience.” Not to mention the ticket sales.

. . . or in the pub

Yet plenty of orchestras are happy to leave their natural habitats. Woodhead says that for a forthcoming Bach cantata series the OAE players thought about how they could conjure up the same reverential atmosphere that Bach’s church congregations might have experienced — “and we did actually look at performing them in an Apple Store”.

That idea has been parked for the moment, but The Night Shift continues to expand its reach up and down the nation’s watering holes. “We went to a pub in Ancoats, Manchester,” says Woodhead. “A fairly basic place: spit and sawdust. The repertoire was pretty challenging: Bach, Beethoven. But during the performance no one said a word or moved. And at the end of the Beethoven a guy who looked like an extra from Shameless, serving the beers, said: ‘That were banging, that were. Do it again.’ ”

Take the money and run

Matching a British orchestra with a ferociously alcoholic Chinese beverage might not seem obvious. However, at a time when public subsidy is stagnating (or worse) the Philharmonia has netted more than £500,000 from a government-brokered deal with the brewing company Wuliangye, which makes a leading brand of baijiu, a tipple drunk by millions of Chinese but so far not widely exported to Europe. “It’s not something you drink in vast quantities,” says Whelton, diplomatically, “but when you drink it, it gives . . . a great feeling of wellbeing.”

It’s trebles all round for the orchestra, however, because in return for “supporting the brand” with adverts and receptions for Wuliangye’s VIPs, they not only get half a million quid over five years but 0.5 per cent of the company’s annual profits.

In Liverpool the RLPO may be hoping for more modest gains from its tie-in with the city’s Mad Hatter brewery, which has made a Vasily Petrenko ale in honour of the orchestra’s chief conductor. Apparently it has a “mellow finish”, in stark contrast to the way Petrenko wraps up Rachmaninov symphonies.

Ask the big questions

“We are living at a time when orchestras are constantly challenged to present proof that they are indispensable. So we can’t continue living in an ivory tower, simply making music for those who like music, and not reaching out.” This is part of Vladimir Jurowski’s motivation for the London Philharmonic Orchestra’sBelief and Beyond Belief series, an exploration of spirituality that will tie in nearly all its concerts in 2017.

The project’s strength, the LPO’s principal conductor argues, is its complexity: “Everyone can draw something [from it] for themselves,” Jurowski says. “We’re dealing with matters of life and death, love and recreation, religion, mystical cults, metaphysics and the relation between art and society, it’s all included in spirituality.”

The Manchester Camerata’s Equinox in October, meanwhile, is a head-spinning collaboration with the Manchester Science Festival. Devised by Norwegian composer and violinist Henning Kraggerud and the Sophie’s World author Jostein Gaarder, the work explores the gamut of traditional tonality and is divided into 24 sections marking each hour of the day. Let’s hope it won’t feel like that.

Concentration is good for you

Three years ago the San Francisco Symphony ruffled feathers when it announced that it would start marketing some of its balcony tickets during the summer season as “tweet seats”, from where the audience could share their concert experience without fear of being told to turn their phone off. British orchestras haven’t yet followed suit.

“I don’t want my audiences tweeting or emailing or using any gadgets,” says Jurowski. “I think however much a multitasking genius you are, you cannot actually listen to something while doing something else without it turning into background music.”

However, Jurowski argues that concert audiences should be offered other ways of connecting with a classical piece than simply sitting in silence in the dark — “using visual elements that can attract people’s attention and distract them from playing with their iPhones”.

Despite the LCO’s reputation for shaking up the formula of classical events, its conductor, Hugh Brunt, says an orchestral concert can still be a cue for silent contemplation. “For our performance of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel at the Roundhouse, we considered the space almost as a secular cathedral and looked to set up something very fragile and intense, with quiet and silence.”

We’re all in this together

David Whelton bows out this month after 29 years in charge of the Philharmonia. His one lesson for his successor, he says, is to impress upon performers that “audiences are part of the experience”. Meaning? “Without them we wouldn’t be here. So how you communicate physically with them, that laugh, that joy, that sparkle in your eye as you play, that’s what we need to have every time you go out on to the concert platform. It’s much more important than lighting or anything else.”

Jurowski agrees but puts the pressure as much on the audience as the orchestra. “In order to experience something, you have to participate, you have to give in. We need to wake people up. We all get lazy, we sit in comfortable chairs, zapping through TV programmes or surfing online without moving a limb. That brings a kind of spiritual laziness.”

For Woodhead, the key lies in creating a communal experience. The OAE’sTurning Points series at Kings Place in London in 2017 will build in a dialogue between audience and orchestra from the point at which they buy the ticket right up to the concert — and possibly beyond. “They could get to know the players, the repertoire, and get to know each other. They could write the programme, discuss tempi or even decide the encore. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if after going on a whole journey of Vivaldi or Bach they could have a reunion after?” And you thought you were just getting a night off from the kids.

Neil Fisher, The Times