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Alt-Classical Addenda

Some further thoughts on yesterday's piece.

First: It's impossible to include everyone -- indeed, writing this article made me realize just how prevalent this movement, or spirit, is -- but I neglected to mention one of the pioneers of alt-classical, the cellist Matt Haimovitz, who happens to be performing his latest project, Figment, at the Iota Club and Café in Arlington on Sunday afternoon. Figment examines the melting-pot traditions of the United States and Canada, where Haimovitz is based (and where he is one of the music programmers for the newly-launched alt-classical club eXcentris in Montreal.)

Second: I am particularly encouraged by the way "alt-classical" thinking informs the tradition repertory. Take ECCO, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, the 17 whiz-kid string players I mentioned in the piece who take time from their solo careers and orchestra jobs a couple of times a year to go on musical retreats together. The idea was born in what Nick Kendall, one of the founders, calls the idealistic environment of Marlboro. "The way it works," Kendall says, "is I find a beautiful place to rehearse; everybody pays their way; [there's] no clock, no leader; we rotate leadership; and everybody contributes [for groceries]."
(read more after the jump)

The repertory is standard all the way: ECCO's Kennedy Center program in February features Purcell, Elgar, Britten, Villa-Lobos and Tchaikovsky. The difference from conventional classical institutions lies in the approach. "All of us have played the Tchaikovsky serenade in gigs with orchestra where we just plow through," Kendall says. But with ECCO, "we really think about, do I play an accelerando here? ...We’re really juiced about it." The group makes very little money; whatever they earn in their few concerts each year is divided up to recoup the costs of the groceries.

ECCO epitomizes the project-based thinking of younger musicians. It's not uncommon for many of them, like Kendall, to have a number of different groups, and to conceive even of standard repertory in terms of projects rather than simply individual gigs. "I'm not looking to just do 100 dates of the Tchaikovsky concerto," says Kendall.

Then there's the Chiara Quartet, taking Beethoven into bars. The players are so excited by their experiences so far that they are commissioning a series of pieces from prominent young composers – Nico Muhly, Gabriela Frank, and others – that are designed to be played in clubs, with the composer acting as a kind of DJ.

In his e-mail to me Greg Beaver, the Chiara's cellist, wrote, "That visceral connection to the music and to the artists is something we strive for on all levels even more than we did before playing in clubs."

And he added, "Knowing that this music absolutely positively works for people who prefer folk music, for people who prefer indie rock, even for people who prefer rap or country music has given us new confidence in both our future and the future of the string quartet as a vibrant, living contemporary music."

By Anne Midgette  |  October 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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One of the very earliest experiments in Alt Classical, long before the genre had a name, was the collaboration of Corky Siegel and the Siegel-Schwall band with composer Bill Russo and the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. They recorded "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra" for Deutsche Grammophon in 1971. Currently, Corky Siegel continues to explore the meeting place between Classical Music and the Blues with his group Chamber Blues, which features original compositions for string quartet, blues harmonica and piano, and percussion. Samples of their unique music can be heard at

Posted by: BluesLover | October 15, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone have any thoughts on why the free Chiara String Quartet concert yesterday at noon at the National Gallery of Art included works by Prokofiev, Webern, and Debussy; and the group’s program tomorrow night at the Strathmore Mansion in North Bethesda (according to the website) will include music by Beethoven, Debussy, and Prokofiev?

I can understand the Strathmore Hall Foundation perhaps being constrained this autumn by the tail of the lessening recession (despite being located in relatively affluent Montgomery County, Maryland), but the National Gallery of Art, with its music endowments, should not have felt the same music programming constraints, in my opinion.

In my opinion, the National Gallery of Art should have asked the young Chiara String Quartet to include either a quartet by Gabriela Lena Frank (the new young composer in residence of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, now under Joana Carneiro - after 30 years under Kent Nagano) or by Jefferson Friedman, whose work has been performed by the National Symphony Orchestra – two of numerous younger classical composers championed by the Chiara String Quartet.

(Perhaps the National Gallery of Art could make amends by inviting the Chiara String Quartet back for a concert of music by living composers, or invite Gabriel Prokofiev, from London, to perform Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra in the East Wing Atrium of the National Gallery of Art.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | October 15, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the programming decision was lame. I'm most annoyed that they couldn't do the Webern at Strathmore. I get jealous when other cities get cool new stuff and we get standard rep up and down the line.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 19, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

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