by Judah Adashi, Founder and Artistic Director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series
Dear Sybaritic faithful: my apologies for the delay in writing and sharing Part II of my guest post. In Part I: The M-Word, I addressed the challenges faced by artists who do their own fundraising. I’m pleased to report that we have since reached our Kickstarter goal for the 10th anniversary season of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series in Baltimore! We’ve also presented our first concert of the season, featuring the beautiful music of Caroline Shaw. That event, along with a recent concert I put together at the Peabody Institute, serve as a springboard to my thoughts below.
Part II: Putting on a Show
“As you say, the series is just starting up; the first show is…[laughs] ‘show;’ that’s not what you call a classical music recital, is it?”
This was Aaron Henkin, host of WYPR’s The Signal in Baltimore, sheepishly correcting himself on air during an interview we did a few weeks ago. Little did he know that he had stumbled upon something very much on my mind these days. If musicians aren’t putting on a show, what exactly are we doing, and why would we expect anyone to attend?
I started thinking about this in earnest after attending a Peabody Percussion Group concert at the Peabody Institute last spring. Both the performance and the space were divided into three segments, each associated with a different percussion setup and repertoire. In addition to conservatory students, the event also featured guest artists and alumni.
As the evening unfolded, it occurred to me that virtually no other department does anything like this. The student percussionists, mentored passionately by my colleague Bob Van Sice, didn’t merely offer an account (a “recital”) of music learned over the course of a semester. The repertoire was compelling, and the performances were impressive, but these were only two aspects of an event that was much more than the sum of its parts. This was a show: a spectacle, in the best sense of the word.
This idea of creating a multidimensional experience for the audience is increasingly what motivates me as a presenter (and as a composer, but perhaps this is a subject for another post). As the artistic director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, I try to construct shows that offer an organic and uninterrupted flow, not unlike an album or playlist. I am partial to 75 to 90-minute programs, usually about an hour of music, ideally with no intermission and no need for changes in stage setup. I’ve also experimented with spoken, instrumental and electronic interludes to facilitate personnel changes and transitions between pieces, as well as multimedia, lighting and staging elements.
A few examples of events that I’ve organized on the Evolution Series and at Peabody:
- In May 2013, we ended the 8th season of the Evolution Series with an evening of music by John Luther Adams. In between performances of John’s solo and chamber works, the composer read aloud from his own writings, most memorably his powerful piece entitled “Global Warming and Art.”
- In September 2014, we kicked off the 10th anniversary season of the Evolution Series with composer Caroline Shaw. Caroline shares my preference for a seamless evening (as she aptly put it, “more like a theatre piece than a regular concert”). We divided the program and the small stage into three sections – a piano, a percussion setup, and a string quartet – with the musicians entering and exiting as Caroline improvised short interludes on her violin and loop pedal. Since the program opened with a solo cello piece inspired by a candlelit church service, we arranged two dozen candles at the front of the stage; these remained lit throughout the show.
- Also last month, I presented the first concert on Peabody’s 2014-15 Sylvia Adalman Chamber Series. For this event, I brought together faculty, staff, students, alumni and guests behind a simple concept: repeating bass lines throughout music history (the inspiration came from an essay by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross). The program ranged from early music to new music and jazz, again with quasi-improvised, electroacoustic transitions. We quite literally cross-faded between pieces, using lighting to delineate a separate space for the interlude performances. As at the Caroline Shaw event, applause was welcomed and gratefully received, but never disrupted the arc of the show.
All of this is nothing new, of course. Most of it is standard fare in a jazz or pop concert. In the contemporary-music world, theatrical sensibilities are championed by artists like eighth blackbird; their recent performance of Amy Beth Kirsten’s Colombine’s Paradise Theater comes to mind. Such ideas also have a vibrant life in alternative venues, as classical musicians have ventured out into bars, clubs, and beyond.
I think we benefit from bringing aspects of the alternative venue back into the concert hall. We don’t need to discard all of the conventions of classical performance, but they should be questioned. It’s important to ask ourselves why we expect people to come hear us make music, and what kind of vibe we’re trying to create around it. Playing great music very well is rarely enough, and curating a concert should involve more than good programming.
Turning a performance into an inviting, communal experience goes beyond the concert itself. On the Evolution Series, every show opens with a pre-concert conversation, and is followed by a wine reception. For a slightly higher ticket price, we also offer an “Extended Play” event at a local coffee shop, an after party with food, drink, and a bonus track performed by the featured artists.
During a recent visit with composers and singers in a summer program offered by Rhymes with Opera (an organization that excels at smart, inventive presentation), I made an analogy between a concert and a party. In both cases, there is an art to planning the flow of an evening, greeting guests, and engaging them through conversation, music, and more. The endgame is the same: imagine the world you want to create, and be generous and entertaining with your audience. When live music is shared in this way, the experience can be transformative.
The music of composer Judah Adashi has been described as “beguiling” (Alex Ross, New Yorker) and “elegant” (Steve Smith, Boston Globe). Dr. Adashi has been honored with awards, grants and commissions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the ASCAP and BMI Foundations, the American Composers Forum, New Music USA and the Aspen Music Festival, as well as residencies at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A committed musical organizer, advocate and educator, Dr. Adashi is the founder and artistic director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, noted for having “elevated and enriched Baltimore’s new music scene enormously” (Baltimore Sun). He is also on the composition and music theory faculty at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Adashi holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Peabody, and a bachelor’s degree from Yale University.
The Evolution Contemporary Music Series, founded in 2005 and directed by composer and Peabody Institute faculty member Judah Adashi, is a Baltimore-based concert series dedicated to the music of living composers. Praised by Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun for having “elevated and enriched Baltimore’s new music scene enormously,” and by the Baltimore City Paper as “superb…not the same-old, same-old,” the Evolution Series has presented or premiered works by over 75 composers, performed by acclaimed musicians from Baltimore and beyond. Events regularly include pre-concert conversations with performers, composers, critics and scholars. Featured guests have included Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; composers Caroline Shaw and John Luther Adams; and music critics Tim Page (Washington Post) and Alex Ross (New Yorker).
right on! a very clear and succinct exposition of an absolutely crucial topic. As you point out this approach to presenting ‘classical’ shows is becoming more and more common. I hope it becomes the norm everywhere, for both new music and old music. Schools should be supporting this too. Presentation, vibe, theatricality, flow, should be concerns of every student recital, from freshman year right on through DMA. I don’t understand why we (as a music community) would want it any other way.
Thanks for commenting, Robert! I think that Judah touched on the most important part: it’s not only about good programming. It is about good programming, skilled performance, and a heightened experience for the audience. It is an experience that musicians, composers, and presenters are all capable of creating and it doesn’t take the thousands of dollars spent on arena-sized pop shows. It is a realization that people make the choice to come to your performances and we want to give them more than just, “something to interest your ears for an hour.”