The Game Changers: 15 Groups Redefining the Classical Music Experience

The classical music industry is infamously resistant to change, subject instead to the iron-clad preferences of longtime wealthy donors.  These fifteen ensembles offer a refreshing twist: whether they’re YouTube celebrities or miniature symphony orchestras, each offers a new outlook on the genre we know and love.

If you know of any other game-changing groups I haven’t mentioned, comment with a link to a video or website — I’d love to learn about more awesome classical ensembles, and maybe I’ll write a second installment of this post sometime in the future.  Until then, enjoy these groups!  (Listed alphabetically.)

  1. A Far Cry (Boston, MA) >> They’re young, they’re sharp, they’re accessible to the common man — I mean, they rehearse in a storefront!  Their performances are engaging and lively — you can tell they’re having fun — largely because they’re a self-conducted string orchestra.  They rely on communicating with each other, and with the audience, to create a musical experience which the Boston Globe has hailed as “thrilling” and “intrepid.”  When’s the last time you saw the media use those words to describe classical music? 
     
  2. Alarm Will Sound (New York, NY) >> New music is perhaps even shakier a field than generic classical performance, because the stuff is so incredibly weird.  But Alarm Will Sound has turned new music into a multimedia theatrical experience, immersing the audience in the historical and artistic contexts behind the works they perform.  I had the opportunity to see their show 1969 recently, and the experience had the feel of a Ken Burns documentary tripping on acid (which is not as disturbing as it sounds, I promise).  It was thoroughly the most engaging and thought-provoking classical performance I had been to in a long time.  
  3. The Breaking Winds (Rochester, NY) >> They started out as classical bassoon students (at my school!) giving a silly performance of a Lady Gaga medley they’d arranged… until that performance went viral and they found themselves featured on NPRBillboard, and even MTV.  Bassoons gone viral?  That’s some impressive stuff.  The four ladies of the Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet have a fearless sense of humor as well as some amazing talent — a combination that bodes well for garnering interest in the bassoon (and classical music by proxy).  

  4. Brooklyn Rider (Brooklyn, NY) >> These guys get an A+ for creativity.  They play everything from Beethoven to Philip Glass to their own compositions, and their performances push the boundaries of the classical notion of string quartet.  When you see them perform live (which I have been lucky enough to experience), you feel like they’re playing just for you — like you know them personally.  There’s a sense of intimacy to their performance, and also a sense of adventure — expect the unexpected.  
  5. Collective Cadenza (New York, NY) >> Their slogan?  “We create musical video experiments.”  These guys use the Internet for all it’s worth — YouTube is their stage, and the world is their audience.  Their team comprises Juilliard grads, Broadway stars, and indie rockers, among others.  Their videos explore new ways of presenting music — both classical and popular — and are endlessly entertaining.  This group has enough enthusiasm and energy to power a small city for weeks — and classical music could definitely usean energy boost right now.  
  6. Ensemble HD (Cleveland, OH) >> When I first read about this group in an Economist article that has been floating around the Facebook network of musicians, I was star-struck.  Here are some of the best classical musicians in the world — for real: we’re talking principal wind and string personnel from the Cleveland Orchestra — playing Dvořák and Britten and Pärt… in a local bar/hot dog restaurant, wearing jeans and T-shirts.  But this is by no means classical music “out of context” — it’s classical music in a new context.  A context with beers and waitresses and cell phones — real people enjoying real music in the real world.  Talk about making classical music accessible.  
  7. ensemble mini (Berlin, DE) >> When orchestras play large-scale works like Mahler’s Ninth, the audience is often excluded from the group-minded energy onstage.  Fortunately, young British conductor Joolz Gale came up with a solution: “mini-Mahler,” arranged intimately for chamber orchestra, so the audience feels like part of the music-making.  The ensemble includes some of Berlin’s top players, all very young, from around the world.  Their motto is “small is beautiful,” and their mission is “to explore great music in intimate ways.”  It’s an intriguing concept still in its early stages, but it has the potential to bring to the classical music world changes that are far from mini. 

  8. E.S.P. (Rochester, NY) >> Saxophonists are like the jocks of music school — they’re just so cool.  Case in point: the Eastman Saxophone Project — the world’s first “conductor-less” saxophone ensemble, and almost certainly the only such ensemble to perform all their music (most of which they arrange themselves) from memory.  Sans conductor and sheet music, the energy between the performers is palpable and contagious.  There is something just so impressive about this group that appeals well beyond the scope of the classical music world.  I am so lucky to go to school with these people.  

  9. Imani Winds (New York, NY) >> These guys are Grammy-nominated, which speaks for their talent, for sure — but besides being some of the most amazing players I have ever had the privilege of meetingand hearing, their group can perhaps best be described as innovative.  They are all educators passionate about community outreach in classical performance, and they have made monumental strides towards diversity in the classical music world (i.e., they prefer music by Paquito D’Rivera and Mohammed Fairouz to stuff by the dead white guys who usually dominate classical programming).  Their performances are so much fun — just watch.  I promise you’ll enjoy it.  
  10. The Knights (Brooklyn, NY) >> Remember Brooklyn Rider?  I wrote about them, like, five paragraphs ago?  Well, the Jacobson brothers of aforementioned Brooklyn Rider founded the Knights, a chamber orchestra that has been praised internationally as the future of classical music.  The orchestra is literally a group of best friends, originating from late-night sight-reading sessions the Jacobson brothers’ Brooklyn home, and you can practically hear the friendship when they play.  Their programs include Beethoven alongside Jimi Hendrix, and they’ve collaborated with such big names as Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.  They’re just a big, happy, musical family, and they welcome the audience with open arms.  
  11. PROJECT Trio (Brooklyn, NY) >> They describe themselves as “genre-bending,” but that’s only the half of it.  Greg Pattillo, who first rose to fame several years ago as The Beatboxing Flutist, is joined by two other accomplished graduates of the illustrious Cleveland Institute of Music — bassist Peter Seymour and cellist Eric Stephenson — in a chamber group that redefines chamber music.  They play classical covers and their own compositions, always incorporating improv and a sense of spontaneity.  They’re not just bending genres — they’re creating new ones.    
  12. Silent Opera (London, UK) >> The creative geniuses behind Silent Opera have harnessed modern technology to transform the alienating grandeur of operatic performance into an extremely personal, immersive experience.  Audience members wear headphones which play a pre-recorded orchestral track, while the singers and actors perform live, interacting with the audience spatially and theatrically.  The audience is invited to get up and move around, following the actors throughout the environment, thoroughly immersed in their own sound-world.  This allows each listener to experience the music in their own way, as an active participant in the performance rather than just an observer. 

  13. Sound ExChange (Rochester, NY) >> Yet another amazing ensemble from my school, the Sound ExChange Orchestrais entirely student-run — everything from programming to performance venues is decided by ensemble members.  The premise behind Sound ExChange is simple: the energy we as musicians feel when we perform doesn’t always carry out to the audience… so why not let the audience sit inside the orchestra, so they can experience the music right alongside us?  Past performances have included collaborations with soloists, composers, dancers, artists, and animators.  All performances are in accessible public places — hospitals, churches, university cafeterias.  Music by the people, for the people.  
  14. Time for Three (Indianapolis, IN) >> The three guys of Tf3 became friends while studying at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, drawn together by a love of improvisation that was not shared by any of their fellow intense, “strictly classical” students.  Tf3 performs covers of popular and classical songs with their own creative twists — some improv thrown in, or perhaps a glimpse of Stavinsky’s Firebird within a rendition of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”  They call themselves a “classically-trained garage band,” and their concerts feel like jam sessions — they dress down, and chat with the audience, and announce their set from the stage instead of in printed programs.  I got to meet them at one of their concerts last year, and they’re all so incredibly nice.  It’s hard not to instantly like them, as performers and aspeople.  
  15. The Virtual Choir (Everywhere!) >> Choral composer Eric Whitacre wasn’t involved in classical music until his college years, when he joined choir to meet girls.  Now, he’s one of the most popular composers of choral repertoire, ever.  In this TED Talk, Whitacre explains the genesis of the Virtual Choir — a digital choir comprised of YouTube videos sent in by singers from all over the world.  Thousands of videos, thousands of voices — one song, one musical experience.  The Virtual Choir allows the inhabitants of the Internet to participate actively in the music-making, and to experience the wonder of being a part of something so much bigger than yourself.  Isn’t that what classical music — or any music, really — is all about?  

 

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