Thursday, March 27, 2014

A global dance party

I'll get the 'full disclosure' part out of the way first. I used to work for the Chicago Sinfonietta as their Communications Director, and I still do some research and writing for them for which I am compensated. I have a great deal of respect for what they do, both philosophically and creatively. But I should be clear: This respect flows from an alignment of my values with their activities. I don't say nice things about them because they pay me to do so.

I previewed their most recent concert for Arte y Vida Chicago, and you can read that here. I attended the concert a couple of nights ago and have had some time to think about what I heard and saw. That's what this blog post is about.

A few quick words about the Sinfonietta for those of you who didn't click the Arte y Vida link. They are led by a woman from Taiwan, who inherited that role from the African-American conductor who founded the orchestra 27 years ago. They play a mix of standard repertoire (that's what most people think of when they hear the words 'classical music', leaning heavily on music written by dead white guys) with newer works by living composers who are often the complete opposite of dead white guys. Somehow, they make this work, finding room for both in a single thematic concert. It probably helps that they shy away from dissonance and extremes. There's a populist aesthetic to be sure, but it doesn't cross the line into pandering.

photo by Chris Ocken
Their most recent offering was titled Global Dance Party. Given that the concert was presented at Chicago's Symphony Center, you can rest assured that dancing is generally not encouraged. The orchestra's marketing addressed this contradiction with some gibberish about 'dancing in your seats'. Nonetheless, there was a reason for the title: A focus of the programming was built around Indian-flavored hip-hop dance music of DJ Rekha, whose style makes liberal use of Bollywood and Bhangra sources from her cultural and ethnic background. Hip-hop being what it is, though, lots of other sounds make their way in: dub reggae and dancehall, Latin and Brazilian, and of course fat beats. It's music designed for sweaty dance clubs and street parties, not concert halls. Integrating a live orchestra into that was an audacious and unlikely experiment.

Did it work? For the most part, yes. The centerpiece was a tune called Pyar Baile, a song that was released a few years ago by Rekha and her writing and production partner (and Indian percussionist) Dave Sharma. It's a thick slice of carioca funk seasoned with Bollywood touches and features vocals in both Hindi and Brazilian Portuguese. Unfortunately, technical difficulties with Rekha's deck forced everyone to hit the reset button, and even after they did an uneven sound mix found the orchestral arrangements overpowering the electronics.  The arrangements weren't interesting enough by themselves to encourage any dancing, in the seats or otherwise.

I'll get back to Rekha later, but it's the rest of the evening that provided context for this 'DJ with an orchestra' thing, taking it beyond novelty. There were not one, but two guest conductors leading the orchestra (usually not at the same time). Both are rising young stars gaining a lot of notice, but on the surface have little in common. Alexandra Arrieche was born in Brazil and brought South American works with her from Astor Piazzolla and Hector Villa-Lobos. The 30-something African-American conductor Joseph Young selected works from the equally young African-American composer Jonathan Bailey Holland. The wild card was something from the Hungarian composer Erno Dohnányi.

All the selections shared upbeat tempos and sonic brightness. Piazzolla is the inventor of nuevo tango, of course, and his Fuga y Misterio is a whirlwind of rhythmic strings. Villa-Lobos is a Brazilian national treasure, and the orchestra sounded wonderful on his Bachianas Brasileira No. 2. Holland's work is harmonically and structurally complex, but it's inspiration here on The Party Starter and Motor City Dance Mix were the great disco and soul records of the 1970s, heavily flavored with hi-hat, suspended piano chords and glistening strings. Even the outlier, Dohnányi's Symphonic Minutes, proved a lively choice, based as it is on Hungarian folk dance.

What everything had in common was that all the composers took something popular (in the "of the people" sense) and interpreted it through another musical form. The conductors, clearly relishing the opportunity to lead music that was dear to them, coaxed sustained inspired playing from the orchestra.

photo by Chris Ocken
That brings us back to DJ Rekha. In sourcing her sounds from ethnic traditions, she translates them into dance floor fillers. The Sinfonietta experiment took this one step further, bringing Rehka's mixes into the realm of, quote-unquote, serious music. But it is a party, after all. Rekha returned for the finale, her deck fully functional and sound balance fixed, for a three movement suite comprised of material originally developed for a DJ set in a club. The orchestral arrangements were uncluttered, giving the beats and samples room to breathe and do their intended thing. A crucial extra element was inviting an orchestra violinist who is also a noted jazz musician to grab the spotlight and inject several energetic improvised passages in a sort of duet with Rekha. In a final touch, the Sinfonietta organization had cleverly invited a number of young Indian dance students to flood the aisles and edges of the stage. Turning up the house lights blurred the distinction between stage and audience. Now the party had, finally, started in earnest.

A total success? Um, maybe not quite. Worth doing? Depends on your perspective. Mine is that great things can happen when you mix cultures. I'm not only talking about ethnic culture, but also the increasingly meaningless distinction between high and pop culture. If the unfettered shared joy in the hall at this concert is any indication, this was certainly a welcome achievement.

photo by Chris Ocken

1 comment:

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