Millennial Music Makers: String Playing in the 21st Century
A state-of-the-arts report
And outside the classical mainstays, such as the big orchestras, is an alternative scene that is attracting young string players intent on exploring new opportunities, often with much success. For instance, Tosca Strings and such solo artists as cellist Matt Haimovitz are taking matters into their own hands and venturing out to nightclubs and bars to tap into the 20- to 30-something demographic.
“Kids have never heard that music,” says Asbell, noting that given the time and exposure, even club kids can take to Bartók as warmly as they take to Beck.
“Through the years I’ve just seen the audience of classical symphony decline and I think it’s a great opportunity to branch out because who knows the reality of what symphony music is going to become,” says Tosca violinist Tracy Seeger. “We, as a group, have many more opportunities than say the other classical musicians in this town.”
In addition to Byrne, the Toscas have performed and recorded with Ray Charles, the Dixie Chicks, Ray Benson, the Friends of Dean Martinez, and actor-cum-bar-band-frontman Russell Crowe.
Many string players also have learned that 21st century audiences want less pomp and more personality. “You have to have more of a connection with your audience. People are less interest in only seeing you on a pedestal,” says Pacifica Quartet violist Masumi Per Rostad.
“So many presenters say ‘can you talk to the audience?’ They want to know that it’s not just robots up there, but that it’s people.”
And there are other changes. Eighth Blackbird has begun to give house concerts in a studio that can host between 30 to 40 guests for a more intimate concert experience. Dressing the part has changed as well: formalwear is so 1982. Today’s players often sport a more casual look. And audiences want to make a connection with the players and their repertoire.
When the St. Lawrence String Quartet plays engagements, it takes particular care to detail the inspiration that led to a particular composition and to highlight how artists functioned as real people and, in many cases, partied like the greatest rock stars.
“People have this very antiquated sense of who these composers were and they look at pictures of Beethoven with this kind of scowl on his face and big grey hair,” Miró’s Gindele says. “As a result, I really feel like a lot of the edge is taken out of what these guys were doing because of our opinion of them.”
There is a concerted effort among chamber ensembles, orchestras, and soloists to paint a colorful background and show that these artists warrant more modern considerations.
For example, the Punk Rock Orchestra, while taking classical music to the extreme, is also making the popular music of Haydn’s era relevant to the popular music of today. “Mozart back in the day was a party animal,” says Fiore.
“Classical music in the time it was written wasn’t confined to stuffy concert halls, but was embraced as new, exciting music for young people as well.”
Whether it is through music, culture, or technology, this new century is tearing down barriers for everyone. Especially among players boasting primarily contemporary repertoire, destroying the preconceived notions that often surround classical music and its instrumentation has proved liberating in ways that until now seemed impossible.
“We are four people playing classical instruments, yet the music we play is so far removed from classical music,” says FLUX founder Tom Chiu, who would like to see the era continue to encourage players and audiences to experiment with both their musical tastes and expectations.
With such presenters as Saul Gropman taking the reins quite strongly on these same issues, Chiu and other contemporary string players may not have to wait too much longer. As the artistic director of the Morrison Artists Series at San Francisco State University, Gropman has overseen the debuts of some of the world’s most accomplished talents.
Recently, he organized a recital that included the St. Lawrence String Quartet and FLUX Quartet with Kirk Hammett, über guitarist from metal maestros Metallica, to entertain a mainly black-tie crowd for a benefit gala.