Between the second and the third portion of Time for Three‘s main performance with the Lexington Philharmonic Friday , violinist Nick Kendall leaned forward and said something to the first few rows that was hard to understand. But it did sound like he used the word “fun.”
Now there’s a word you don’t often hear associated with orchestral music, a genre dogged with a staid, academic reputation; the “eat your vegetables” of music.
Orchestras have done a lot of things over the past few decades attempting to attract younger audiences.
They have had casual concerts, concerts of rock song transcriptions, tweeting sections at concerts, concerts that seem more like wine tastings, promotional campaigns that tell you classical music is good for you (eat your veggies) and gimmick after misguided gimmick.
The Lexington Philharmonic has, thankfully, avoided a lot of these. But Friday night, the orchestra offered up what is probably the best strategy for growing audiences in the 21st century: a program of relevant music performed by skilled, passionate musicians in an inviting atmosphere.
The Philharmonic took the stage casually dressed in black — no white tie and tails — surrounded by some unusual objects for a classical concert, including a drum kit, to welcome Time for Three, a classically-trained trio of two violinists and a bassist who all intentionally forgot what genres are.
Music director Scott Terrell, who introduced this group to Lexington in 2012, put together a concert of early century American music, meaning early 20th century in the first half (Aaron Copland’s Our Town and George Gershwin’s Catfish Row, Symphonic Suite from “Porgy and Bess”) and 21st century with Chris Brubeck’s Travels in Time for Three, and a little encore from Mumford and Sons (Little Lion Man).
It was an illuminating pairing, amplifying the cultural appropriation that has been going on in music composition for … forever and distinctly American sounds that have come to define our music. It was easy to hear the Copland from the first part of the concert echo in the final measures of Suspended Bliss, the third movement of Brubeck’s Travels in Time for Three.
In the pre-concert chat, the group said the piece was written as a sort of time capsule through American music. What it did best in the hands of Time for Three, drummer Matthew Scarano, Terrell and the orchestra was bring out a collaborative spirit we most commonly associate with jazz, bluegrass and chamber music. At one point in the spirited second part, Irish Folk, Odd Times, Kendall and fellow violinist Zach De Pue looked like they were about to climb over bassist Ranaan Meyer as they traded phrases. And Meyer had his own moments in the spotlight, including as engaging a bass solo as you will hear. (For more stuff from Meyer, check out YouTube for his performance of the national anthem, on double bass, at a Philadelphia Phillies game.)
It was a night for solos, particularly in the Porgy and Bess suite. Early in the work, pianist Ryan Shirar dove into an improvisational solo and Terrell leaned back on the podium as if to say, “Go Ryan.” It was one of several moments Terrell, who looked like he was having a really good time, did that in this loose concert. A number of other orchestra members had distinctive solo turns in Porgy, and next month’s concert will serve to highlight Philharmonic musicians in an even brighter spotlight.
Was Friday’s concert perfect? No. Particularly in the first portion of the Brubeck, Thematic Ride, the orchestra and Time for Three, which was amplified, struggled to find a balance. There, and in some portions of the Gershwin, it seemed as if Terrell needed to keep a bit more of a lid on the Philharmonic.
But perfection is overrated, and really not necessary when you have an exuberant evening like this. Kendall was emblematic of the show, making you forget he had a score in front of him as he played to the audience, the orchestra and Terrell. Far from a time capsule, it was an evening that was fresh and modern, and if more orchestra concerts were like this, there would be a lot less fraught discussion about how orchestras can attract younger audiences.
It was hard to tell what Kendall said to the crowd Friday, but if it was “fun” he would have been right.