Community arts, community orchestra
Connecting with the community, part whatever-we’re-up-to-now: on Sunday I went to a concert by the McLean Orchestra that I thought did the job very well. Sylvia Alimena, who’s been music director of the orchestra for several years, has to be one of the busiest musicians in Washington, between the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in Alexandria (their recent Naxos recording of overtures by Gassmann is the first, I believe, in a series), the McLean orchestra, Brass of Peace (a teaching/mentoring program for gifted high school students), and her 25-year tenure (and counting) with the National Symphony Orchestra. What she offered here was impressive no-nonsense conducting of an orchestra that played very respectably for her.
(read more after the jump)
The program was actually conceived for Valentine’s Day, and rescheduled due to the winter storms; it was a Romeo and Juliet concert that took the appropriate music by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Prokofiev, excerpted it, and mingled it with snippets of the play performed by three actors standing Juliet-style on a balcony above the assembled players on the sanctuary/stage of the Oakcrest School in McLean. I expected this excerpting to bother me more than it did; it wasn’t the best way to hear the pieces as pieces, but it created a viable sense of narrative, and it was also informative to hear some of the music (especially the Tchaikovsky, which has its sugary moments) treated as film music, underlying words to give them emotional color. The only really jarring moment, to my ear, was the abrupt intrusion of Tchaikovsky into the Prokofiev on the second half; but for the most part I found it a legitimate exploration of a way to put a slightly different twist on the concert experience -- if not necessarily something you’d want to hear tried on a regular basis.
Another unexpected, and unintentional, factor was the acting: it was so bathetic that the music seemed more honest and direct than the texts, by comparison. The three actors -- particularly the two playing Romeo and Juliet -- approached Shakespeare by means of heightened declamation, while the orchestra played with fire and guts. The McLean Orchestra is largely comprised of amateur or semiprofessional musicians; it can't offer the technical chops of highly trained professionals. But it did offer that often chimerical ideal of an amateur group: genuine love of music, and excitement about playing it. The Tchaikovsky's climaxes had a thrilling force that even top ensembles don't always demonstrate.
You could say this is what DIY music aspires to: that thrill of being part of something that is in so many ways bigger than yourself. You can get it in the audience; you can get it even more when you're actually playing yourself.
Of course, the focus of the performance is not the players, but the audience. And unfortunately, it's not completely realistic to say that strong musical performances are the best way to connect with your community: it isn't always enough. But it is true that you're not going to be able to connect without them, either. I don't know what Sunday's audience made of the experience; but its members certainly got their money's worth.
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