from pythagoras to prometheus

This weekend I attended an exciting concert by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Founded in 2013, the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is a self-conducted string orchestra comprised of musicians who were mostly trained in Philadelphia. Those who are well-versed in Greek mythology know Prometheus as the god who brought fire to mankind, and I like to think that the musicians who founded this ensemble chose to associate with this story because they see themselves as trailblazers: igniting sparks of interest in communities and audiences who had previously been in the dark.

However, “Prometheus” also means “forethought” (in contrast to his brother Epimetheus, or “afterthought”). Much the way an art exhibit or museum display is devised, each Prometheus Chamber Orchestra concert is curated with careful consideration of musical style, genre, and composer’s inspiration, to name a few. Rehearsals aside, each concert is given quite a bit of forethought.

The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra presents their concerts free of charge, though the audience cna leave a donation in the basket that is passed around at the conclusion of the performance. Herein lies the problem  — the only really significant problem — I have difficulty reconciling when it comes to these new classical music ensembles popping up to “change the face of classical music”: it isn’t sustainable without the financial contributions of donors and other benefactors that every other classical ensemble is clamoring to secure. But for now, it is working for them.

Thanks, in part, to the disgustingly cold winter we are experiencing, Saturday’sconcert was presented not in the vast and beautiful nave of the Church of the Advocate, but in a basketball court annex. Gymnasiums might conjure up notions of bathtubs for classical musicians — endless reverberations that blend sounds to such an extent that instrumentalists sooner perform tone clusters than carefully rehearsed, articulate performances — but this was not the case at the Advocate! I was grateful both for the warmth and for the acoustics of the basketball court that night.

The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra’s concert began with a welcome from Paster Renee McKenzie who expressed delight in the program that would unite classical music with the jazz genres more familiar to the congregation of the Church of the Advocate. Entitled “Improvisation,” this concert was curated by cellist Thomas LaForgia and consisted of a Balakrishnan arrangement of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” an arrangment of Gershwin’s “Lullaby,” and a world premiere performance of Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Arnold‘s “Jazz Violin Concerto No. 1” with Arnold as soloist. LaForgia wrote in the program notes that “Inspiration honors the legacy of jazz and spirit of creating, expressing, and enjoying music in the moment,” and Saturday’s performance did just that.

The first piece on the program was Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” a lengthy, diverse, and utterly-Balakrishnan arrangement which featured a number of musicians through democratically-incoroporated solos. Aside from minor stylistic interpretations that served to remind me that Prometheus is, in fact, a mostly classically-trained ensemble, the piece was interesting to listen to and enjoyable to watch. As always, the upper strings stood in performance, and their connection to the music and each other was apparent through individual movement and constant contact among sections. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much the ensemble had worked to improve the intonation and balance issues that had run rampant in earlier concerts, and I suspect that the change in rehearsal space was partly to thank.

It felt like there should have been an intermission immediately following the first selection, but the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra keeps their concerts short and to the point, avoiding much of the pomp and circumstance of their counterparts on South Broad Street. After a brief shuffle in seating (standing) arrangement, they began the Gershwin. I have known Gershwin’s Lullaby since I was a freshman in high school — making my acquaintance with the piece just slightly longer than Balakrishnan’s work with the Turtle Island String Quartet — and I have always held it dear to my heart as one of those compositions that can immediately transport you to a different place and time. So often I have pulled it out of my library and looked at the score, longing to introduce it to my public high school students, but I’ve ultimately decided that their cheap, old, student strings would wreak havoc on the artificial harmonics that Gershwin so delicately composed. Why LaForgia opted for an arrangement over the real deal — other than the relatively weak argument that the arrangement had an “official” bass part — is something I won’t understand, but the performance by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra — save some uncharacteristically wide and fast vibrato from a rogue cellist — was beautiful. Violinist Angela Sulzer assumed the role of concertmaster for this selection and executed her solos with a purity of sound free from pretension.

Finally, Joseph Arnold joined the orchestra and spoke briefly about his composition. Though I’m usually a fan of musicians, conductors, and artists speaking about their work, something about Arnold’s introduction made me worry that this would either turn into just another “fiddle” concerto written and performed by a straight-laced player or that it was going to be a piece that tried, unconvincingly, to squeeze itself into a genre for the sake of prgramming. I was wrong on both counts! Yes, his comments, combined with an uncomfortable-looking posture, and a sense of familiarity with the orchestral musicians all came across as a little creepy to me, his piece was very enjoyable. I especially liked that he had a nice jazz style without sacrificing intonation and that his piece was not as flashy as most violin concertos tend to be. It seemed to me that the audience was receptive, and their encore (“Buttermilk Biscuits”?) was welcome.

The entire concert ran for appoximately 1 hour, and musicians provided food and drinks for their customary post-concert reception. Sipping my wine, I took in as much of the audience as I could: families with elementary-age children, fathers/mothers/siblings of performers, other Philadelphia-based composers/conductors/instrumentalists, adults who study Alexander Technique with Joseph Arnold, and congregants from the Advocate. Unfortunately, it seemed like most of the audience were of the concert-going persuasion, not the healthy mix of veteran audience members and fresh faces that I had come to expect from previous performances (though perhaps those fresh faces had no desire to nibble on cheese and make small-talk, or perhaps they had other plans for their Saturday night and attended one of Prometheus’s open rehearsals instead).

I feel that the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is doing many things right: they curate and perform engaging programs, they infuse the traditional concert dress code with contemporary flair, they consider their audiences with timing, seating, and reception, and — above all — they check their baggage at the door and appear to truly enjoy performing. Do I think they’re changing the face of classical music? No. There will always be young, new faces in classical ensembles just as there will always be an ebb and flow to programmed works. Alternative spaces — when acoustically appropriate — are both refreshing and practical, but this approach is far from groundbreaking. But changing the face of classical music? I hope not. I want classical music’s face to stay the way it is. What I hope to see as this orchestra matures is a balance between the integrity of music-making that they are already achieving and an audience who understands, accepts, and welcomes the fact that musicians must make a living through their performances even if that means an end to those free tickets.

Do I think they’re reaching new audiences and enriching lives? Certainly.

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