For this week’s installment of SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, buckle up and hold on tight.  This is John Mackey’s Redline Tango, performed below by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra, Luke Gilmour conducting.

About the Composer:

John Mackey (1973- ) is AWESOME.  I know, because I’ve met him.  I’m even friends with him on Facebook.  Born in Ohio, he completed his undergraduate studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music and received his Master of Music from the Juilliard School.  His composition teacher at Juilliard, John Corigliano, is an amazing composer probably best known for his Oscar-winning score to The Red Violin.  With such musical ancestry, it’s no wonder John Mackey is one of the most popular “classical” composers today.  He’s particularly famous in the world of wind ensemble music — I’ve played dozens of his pieces in various wind groups over the past several years — and also collaborates frequently with dancers and choreographers (as seen here).  His works make great dance music because of their focus on rhythm and repetition — in fact, his clarinet solo Damn was used by the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swim Team in their bronze-winning routine at Athens.  John Mackey is a really friendly, quirky guy, and his music is just as energetic as he is.

About the Piece:

Mackey explains that the title Redline Tango comes from two sources: the term “redlining an engine,” meaning “pushing it to the limit”; and the Red Line train of the New York City subway system.  Somehow, Mackey managed to combine a traditional Argentinian genre with city sounds and orchestral color to produce something that sounds at once like a runaway train, a dance, and a symphony.  How does he do it, you ask?  Listen to the layers of instrumentation in the tango section (beginning around 4’10”) — strings lay down the tango-esque melody and rhythm, which Mackey describes as “demented, and even a bit sleazy”; woodwinds interrupt with crazy high notes like big-city noise pollution; brass interjects like a Doppler-effect train horn.  The intensity of the piece dips and swerves with each change in tempo and style, ultimately “redlining” towards the big finish.  This piece is so much fun, for the orchestra as well as the audience (I say this having participated from both perspectives).  Mackey has definitely tapped into a “cool factor” for classical music, which is what makes this piece so accessible and enjoyable for the masses.

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