The Seattle Symphony branches out with its new "Symphony Untuxed" and "" series that, in different ways, go after nontraditional listeners. Both debut Oct. 19, 2012.
“What we’re trying to do is to attract a different type of audience,” says Elena Dubinets, the Seattle Symphony’s vice president of artistic planning. “No rituals, no rites, no holding applause — they are free to do whatever they want.”
Dubinets, in an interview earlier this month, was talking about two new musical series in the Symphony’s 2012-13 season that both premiere Friday.
“Symphony Untuxed” kicks things off at 7 p.m. with works by Mozart and Haydn in the big concert space at Benaroya Hall. “[untitled]” follows at 10 p.m. with a lineup of six experimental works from 1962 by John Cage, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti and others in Benaroya’s Grand Lobby. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which has a longstanding relationship with symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, takes part in both concerts.
In between, there’s a 9 p.m. performance of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, free to anyone holding tickets to “Untuxed” or “[untitled].” Prokofiev is the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, and his piece is a must-see, as well as a must-hear. (A great BBC Proms performance of it is posted on YouTube.) Symphony assistant conductor Stilian Kirov will lead the orchestra while DJ Madhatter does the highly intricate turntable “scratching.” Prokofiev will attend the concert.
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“Untuxed” and “[untitled]” reflect a two-pronged strategy the symphony is taking to attract nontraditional listeners. For “Symphony Untuxed,” the only real changes are that the concerts will be shorter than usual and have no intermission, and the players will wear dark jeans, trousers or skirts with colored shirts. The programs lean toward mainstream classical repertoire.
The symphony’s principal oboist, Ben Hausmann, will play on the Prokofiev piece and has a composition of his own in an April “[untitled]” concert, and is happy to address issues of formality and informality in the classical-music experience.
“Symphony concerts have gone through a gigantic shift from Mozart’s time, where it was a chance to wear your Sunday best, a place to be seen and to see,” he says. “They’d eat during the concerts, so they weren’t really paying attention. But it gradually became more formal.”
By the 20th century, Hausmann explains, the upper-class “I-am-important-and-I-need-to-be-seen-at-this-important-performance” attitude had won out. But it ran counter to the populist sympathies of some great musical figures, including Aaron Copland, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein.
The new informality and innovation in performance venues and programs can only be a good thing, Hausmann feels. Symphony audiences, of course, have never been subject to a dress code, but he says orchestral players do pay attention to listeners’ appearances: “Sometimes I see a lot of one color in the audience, and I always wonder if there’s a reason for that. … Maybe it’s the piece of music we’re playing.”
The “[untitled]” series, Dubinets explains, marks a more radical departure in symphony offerings and was Morlot’s idea: “He’s a huge proponent of contemporary music.”
Concertgoers will be free to walk around and to choose from several seating options, including lying down on the floor on “carpet squares.” There’s a video component to every work on the program. And Ligeti’s Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes will involve audience participation. (Morlot needs help in getting all those metronomes going.)
Dubinets acknowledges that the “1962” program will push audiences into the deep end of experimental classical music. “We want them to be exposed to it, to know what was going on in that period. They are not obliged to clap. They can yell at us!”
That said, the program comes with impressive credentials. In planning the concert, Dubinets and Morlot worked closely with ICE’s flutist and co-founder Claire Chase, one of the recent crop of MacArthur Foundation fellowship winners.
“She knows everything,” Dubinets says. “She lives in this kind of music.”
The 10 p.m. showtime for “[untitled]” came as a surprise to Hausmann, as it may to some concert goers. But he and his colleague are up for it.
“Most musicians tend to be at their peak focus in the evenings,” he says. “A lot of us take naps — gigantic naps — in the afternoon, and I’m one of them. So I’m usually wide awake until about midnight.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com