Classic Innovation


Post-Classical Ensemble Puts Concerts into Context

Classical music generally lives up to its name right down to the way artists perform it — serious, intellectual, refined, formal, timeless and traditional. Little about the genre has changed over the years, which is why, some might argue, it will always be considered classic. But contemporary times call for imaginative measures.

Enter Washington’s own Post-Classical Ensemble, formed in 2001 by Artistic Director Joseph Horowitz and Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez. The only thing classical about this ensemble is its choice of music. From there, anything goes.

“I’m somebody who for more than 20 years has produced concerts of a certain kind that are thematic and interdisciplinary — that’s what I believe in,” said Horowitz, who has worked as artistic adviser for the annual Schubertiade music festival at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. “What’s unusual about our orchestra is that we do not do standard format concerts. We don’t do standard repertoire for the most part. Our repertoire focuses on music of the Americas, which is to say music of North America, Central America and South America.”

“The concert experience is not surprising; people know what is going to happen,” added Gil-Ordóñez, a Spanish conductor who is also the director of orchestral studies at Wesleyan University. “You go to our concerts and you don’t know really what is going to happen because we are introducing elements that are unexpected.”

Those elements include film, poetry, commentary, dance, contemporary popular music and folk song that seek to put music “in the context of its cultural heritage,” whether it’s with the help of Mexican art by Frida Kahlo or a gypsy band from Budapest. The result is not so much a reinterpretation of classical music as it is an experimental fusion of styles and media — from movie reels to life-size puppets — to elevate and enhance the genre, while reintroducing audiences to a music form often dismissed as old and stodgy by younger generations.

Horowitz and Gil-Ordóñez also recruit well-known musicians to help translate their edgy vision. For instance, klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer and pianist Benjamin Pasternack will appear in Post-Classical’s April 22 show, “Encounters: A John Adams Snapshot,” at the Harman Center for the Arts, the ensemble’s new home base. The program is based on two seldom-heard works — “Gnarly Buttons” and “Phrygian Gates” — by John Adams, an American composer with roots in minimalism who is best known for his 1980s opera “Nixon in China.”

“We begin with an idea and then we find music to support it,” Horowitz said. “Or we might begin with a piece of music.”

A production in early March, “Iberian Inspirations” at the Kennedy Center, reflected the ensemble’s Spanish influence with a program that featured the American premiere of “Montsalvatge Sinfonietta” inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dalí.

Earlier, the ensemble played to a very different tune. “Copland and the Cold War,” which the group performed Jan. 31, showed how the Red Scare affected American concert composer Aaron Copland, re-enacting his 1953 testimony before Sen. Joseph McCarthy about his communist connections. The piece — which traced Copland’s compositional evolution, from modernism to 1930s radicalism to his apolitical “late style” — also involved an audience sing-along of Copland’s “Into the Streets May First.”

“These are things you don’t generally encounter at a concert,” Horowitz said. “Music is not an isolated phenomenon. It’s part of a larger trajectory of culture and history.”

Besides concerts, the ensemble has created another classical crossover with its line of CDs and DVDs. For its second DVD, “The City,” released in January following a performance in 2007, the orchestra took a 1939 documentary film by the same name that had no dialogue, silenced the soundtrack that was written by Copland, and performed his score live. “The live performance liberated Copland’s score from the film’s low-fidelity recording and made the music an equal partner with the film’s images and words,” according to the Washington Post. “The Post-Classical Ensemble synced precisely with the film (a challenge Gil-Ordóñez likened to “conducting an opera where the singers are robots”) and vividly rendered Copland’s striking music.”

“The secret is imagination and trying to find elements that are not in the music but enhance the experience,” said Gil-Ordóñez, a native of Madrid and an admirer of composer Joseph Haydn.

Horowitz, who has written eight books about the history of classical music in the United States, coined the term “post-classical” in his 1995 book, “The Post-Classical Predicament: Essays on Music and Society.”

He embraced the idea of breathing new life into old works while he worked from 1992 to 1997 with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “That’s where I became convinced that there are different ways to present music than the traditional format and that those new ways were timely and satisfying,” said Horowitz, a former New York Times music critic.

So he and Gil-Ordóñez began pulling together the ensemble, made of 60 freelance musicians whom the directors call on as needed, in 2001. It debuted at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in 2003 with a show called “Viva la Revolucion,” which Gil-Ordóñez says played off the idea that the group wanted to revolutionize classical music.

And as the ensemble has found success, so has its conductor. In 2006, the king of Spain awarded Gil-Ordóñez the country’s highest civilian decoration, the Royal Order of Queen Isabella, for his work in advancing Spanish culture in the world. And in January, the music label Naxos — which also produced “The City” — named him artist of the week.

“In our shows in general, what we want is that people get surprised, that they learn something new, that this piece of classical music that they have heard for years we are able to bring a new dimension to them with the experience,” Gil-Ordóñez explained. “I want to think, on the one hand, that we represent our community because I think this is probably the most important mission for an orchestra, to reflect the community in which the orchestra is based. And I want to think that we represent the needs of the 21st century. I think that in the 20th century, art was more isolated — art, music, theater. I think the 21st century is the century of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary art reconnecting each other, experimenting with each other. I want to think that we are doing that.”

About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.