Culture Warriors

As New York’s vanguards of classical music struggle to retain relevancy, a new generation of innovators steps forward to fill the void.

Culture Warriors

The last time I played my flute for money was on a New York City subway platform a little over a year ago. It was in the middle of the summer on a particularly hot day. I wore a short blue sleeveless dress that hugged my thighs almost inappropriately considering where I was. Almost, but not quite.

I was playing directly below Carnegie Hall, on the downtown platform of the yellow line’s 57th Street stop. Had I been magically elevated just a few stories above ground onto the hall’s grand stage, I would surely have stood out amid its tuxedo-and-gowned elite, a hot and sweaty spot of blue in an assembly of black and white.

It was so hot underground that I was ready to go home after just an hour of reiterating the same three Telemann solo flute pieces. Feeling my fingers tire, my tongue lose its popping specificity, my arms and shoulders weaken from keeping a taut but relaxed-looking posture, I remembered a younger me who practiced her flute every day in the pursuit of a musical perfection worthy of a true Carnegie Hall debut. I was a band geek.

Not wanting to let my old self down, I pushed harder. My discomfort must have been obvious to my captive subterranean audience because an elderly Asian woman carting a suitcase on wheels pulled up beside me and stared me into silence.

“If you keep playing like that in this heat you’re going to get sick,” she said bitterly.

She left without adding a dollar bill to the ceramic goblet I’d placed in front of my portable music stand.

Ignoring the admonition, I kept at it—a real pied piper courting, in all likelihood, at least one live subway rat. A week later I came down with a debilitating pneumonia that knocked me out for five weeks. I had made $20 that afternoon, $15 less than the co-pay for a doctor’s office visit. The math was unforgiving. I should never have attempted such a feat. I should have listened to my inner pragmatist when it said, “Go home. Let classical music die. You play upstairs in the air conditioning or not at all.”

Gigging and busking is part of a life I left behind in 2001.  In my sophomore year of college, I transferred from the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, where I studied under John Wion—principal flutist of the New York City Opera at the time—to Hunter College, and changed my major from flute performance to psychology. In doing so, I adhered to the very same logic that drove that elderly woman to insist I head toward the double bars, no repeats.

Quitting was hard, but I’d fallen out of love with the auditioning, the rejection. I’d studied the flute since I was in fourth grade. The instrument came easily to me. I just picked it up and everything flowed. And it continued flowing through my senior year of high school, in New Hampshire, when I was at the peak of my musical skill level. While going to school full time in honors-level courses, I also played principal flute in a local orchestra, was in the state’s most competitive woodwind quintet, and performed in a flute choir at New England Conservatory in Boston. I was also ranked second in the state in the New Hampshire All-State music competition. When I auditioned for colleges, I was next on the waiting list for the prestigious Eastman School of Music, a school I had been dying to attend. Alas, I never made it off the waiting list, and the blow was the first of many to knock me out of the running to become a professional flutist.

The author as a high school senior in Milford, New Hampshire (Photo courtesy Rebecca White)
The author as a high school senior in Milford, New Hampshire (Photo courtesy Rebecca White)

I haven’t touched my flute since that day I caught pneumonia on the subway platform. Right now, the instrument is in a closet in my Astoria apartment. My flute: three separate solid silver pieces that, when assembled, formed a weapon in a war against musical mediocrity. I didn’t know it, but every time I cracked open a book of music with no words underneath its notes, I was a warrior.

Sadly, though, I’ve become a casualty of this war. For ten years, since relinquishing my desire to be a serious classical musician, I’ve wondered what would have happened had I kept that rare dream alive. And who, unlike myself, has boldly chosen to honor the musical whims of a group of mostly-dead, mostly-white, eccentrically-coiffed European composers? And for what? Certainly not money.

These questions sparked a voyage deep into New York’s classical music scene. Not quite a warzone, but an arena where battles are surely being fought.

Not even in New York City, a mecca for elite arts, does success in the classical music industry automatically translate monetarily. But this is old news.

Classical music has been on its deathbed for so long that its dutiful relatives have stopped coming to visit it every night, opting instead to send well wishes on holidays only, or the odd Sunday afternoon.

But last fall, its demise here seemed more imminent than ever before. Speculation about the looming failure of the New York City Opera and the Brooklyn Philharmonic made tabloid fodder out of what would normally have been drawing room gossip. Both institutions were leaving their venerable homes for their 2011-2012 concert season, solutions meant to help cut costs and keep them from foundering permanently. City Opera was unable to maintain its residency at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater due to financial instability and persisting budget problems. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, which was founded in 1857, also began its first season away from what had been its home for decades, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This, too, was a decision that stemmed from thinning finances.

Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM, the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s former home (Photo by Elliot Kaufman, courtesy BAM)
Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM, the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s former home (Photo by Elliot Kaufman, courtesy BAM)

As if created for dramatic effect, City Opera also grappled with nearly show-stopping intransigence on the part of the orchestra union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents singers and other members of the production. The unions fought several company decisions, among them the announcement to leave Lincoln Center and a change from salaried pay for the chorus and orchestra to rehearsal- and performance-only compensation.

Suddenly, being a classical music enthusiast was as entertaining and anxiety-inducing as being a Mets fan.

“Opera Impasse! Unions and Management Clash at Witching Hour Negotiations,” reported Elise Knutsen of The New York Observer in December. The New York Post’s Leonard Greene stooped low enough amid union strike talks in December to implore the universe to “cue the fat lady” already, insinuating that City Opera might as well give up the ghost because it was as good as dead.

A deal was reached with the help of federal mediators and the City Opera’s season went forward as scheduled, with their first performance taking place at the Phil’s recently vacated home, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their season included four operas: La Traviata and Prima Donna (composed by Rufus Wainwright) at BAM, Cosi Fan Tutti at Gerald W. Lynch Theater, and Orpheus at El Museo Del Barrio.

The productions were met with mixed reviews, yet more than a few observers saw a problem larger than a one-year budget crunch. Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote in March 2012 that it was “the most dispiriting opera season” since he began reviewing opera twenty years ago. “Although the economic crisis has taken its toll,” Ross wrote, “the problem is less a lack of money than a lack of intellectual vitality. Both the Met and City Opera are committing the supreme operatic sin: they are thinking small.”

So how do you think big when there’s no money, an ambivalent audience, and what seems like a cosmic collaboration working toward your extinction?

Easy. Get a new brain.

In essence, that’s what the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s board did when they brought on Alan Pierson, now 38, to be their new artistic director in January of 2011. Coupled with Richard Dare, the orchestra’s new chief executive officer, Pierson set out on a rehabilitation course that called for a special kind of jump-start.

Alan Pierson, artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (Photo courtesy Brooklyn Philharmonic)
Alan Pierson, artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (Photo courtesy Brooklyn Philharmonic)

Pierson is an Eastman School of Music graduate known for his work as the artistic director of the adventurous chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound. Special jump-starts are sort of his thing. But Dare was a different kind of cat. A former financier who led a private investing firm, this would be his first dip into the often unforgiving world of The Arts. A yin and yang of sorts, the pair produced a unique product and launched it with gusto.

Enter Mos Def, Grammy-winning hip-hop artist and Emmy-winning actor, as the headlining collaborator of their 2011-2012 season. Set against the negative assaults launched by music critics at City Opera, the resulting hype surrounding the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 2011-2012 season was of a different timbre. The classical media elite was fearful, but they were also hopeful.

While the highbrow press painted City Opera’s managing director George Steel as a tyrannical captain whose every move drew more water onto the sinking ship, those on the Elite Beat saw a metaphor of rebirth in Pierson and Dare. The Brooklyn Phil’s new leaders were being portrayed as heroes, not despots, and journalists last fall were stepping over each other to be the most gushing.

An August 2011 article in New York Magazine pictured an emphatic Alan Pierson hovering over the Brooklyn skyline like a musical prophet, waving his baton at the Brooklyn Bridge while, below him, seven cherubic instrumentalists lay asleep in a bed of sheet music. A New York Times story the following month referred to Pierson as, “A New Leader Who Knows No Boundaries,” and an October profile of Richard Dare by Capital New York leavened the new CEO to hero status as well, asking, “Can Richard Dare save the Brooklyn Philharmonic?” The implication after reading the effusive four-page interview was “Yes. He can.”

Was the media trying to say something? Something like, “City Opera: Bad. Brooklyn Philharmonic: Good?”

It may have seemed that way on the surface, but the real message was one that still has trouble resonating within the classical music community: Same old: Bad. Innovation: Good.

On a hot Saturday evening in Bedford-Stuyvesant this June, a large crowd waited in suspense for Mos Def, an old neighborhood denizen, to appear on stage. But first, the crowd enjoyed an orchestrated remix of the finale of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, produced by a DJ named Eddie Marz.

It was the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 2011-2012 finale concert, the culmination of their peripatetic season capped by their most anticipated event. After traveling to two other Brooklyn neighborhoods, Brighton Beach in November and Downtown Brooklyn in March, the orchestra landed in Bed-Stuy, where Mos Def, performing under his second stage name Yasiin Bey, grew up.

“I began to fear that Mos Def was being treated as a product, not a person, so I’ve been going by Yasiin since ’99,” Bey told GQ magazine this September. “At first it was just for friends and family, but now I’m declaring it openly.”

At the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 2012 finale concert in Bed-Stuy (Photos by Noah Rosenberg)
At the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 2012 finale concert in Bed-Stuy (Photos by Noah Rosenberg)

The concert was outdoors at Restoration Plaza, a 300,000-square-foot space owned and managed by the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Newly restored, the open plaza housed a tent-covered stage raised on a dais. Audience members fanned out from the stage in a semi-circle, some sitting in folding chairs, others cuddling partners on blankets or on the concrete bleacher seats. An ethnically diverse crowd ranging from Mos Def fans to hipsters, middle-aged couples and swarming members of the press created an atmosphere that was unconventionally relaxed and convivial for a classical concert.

Given the eclectic nature of the repertoire—a mix of classical, jazz and hip-hop—it would have been easy to cast the audience members as fans of one genre or the other. But for many, this was not the case.

A Bed-Stuy habitué named Ros Laurent, who wore a baseball cap and a large gold necklace, exclaimed that he was “infatuated with classical music.” Standing with a group of friends, Laurent, 23, said he had expected to attend a classical concert at Lincoln Center that night, but that his plans had changed once he heard that Yasiin Bey was performing with an orchestra in his own neighborhood.

“I’ve been very interested in classical music…witnessing the live instrumentation. A lot of the samples in hip-hop are from classical,” he said. “I’m expanding my palette. That Beethoven was hundreds of years ago, it still sounds good to this day.”

Yasiin Bey performs with Alan Pierson and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (Photo by Noah Rosenberg)
Yasiin Bey performs with Alan Pierson and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (Photo by Noah Rosenberg)

When intermission was over, and CEO Richard Dare was finished cracking a few jokes about the free concert—“If you don’t like the second half, I’ll refund the price of your ticket”—the vibe of the venue changed completely. Those who were sitting got to their feet, those who were standing rushed closer to the stage, and those in the orchestra seemed to exhale a little bit, letting themselves become a little cooler as the artist otherwise known as Mos Def walked onto the stage.

Holding a flamboyantly red microphone and wearing sunglasses, a blue blazer, and an all-white ensemble of dress shirt, pants and shoes, Bey was met with plaudits and “hollas.”

He opened with his hit, “Life In Marvelous Times,” arranged for the orchestra by composer Derek Bermel, who sat a few rows back from the stage and filmed the concert with his iPhone while shaking his head rhythmically. I was disappointed they didn’t rework my favorite Mos Def song, “Ms. Fat Booty.”  Perhaps the title was too prohibitive, even for such a nouveau cultural mash-up.

“The Brooklyn Philharmonic! In your neighborhood,” Bey mumbled into the microphone when his first song was over. “I look cool. I know, I know. I’m nervous, though,” he admitted, looking down at his feet.

“Why?” an audience member shouted back. “You home! You home!” Bey didn’t respond, but continued the show, intermittently drinking sips of Vegan Ripple Tea and reminiscing about life back in the day.

“I grew up around here,” he said later on. “Some of y’all are related to people who used to beat me up.”

One of the highlights of the concert came toward the finale, when the orchestra played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Bey rapped over the untouched, unarranged symphony, at times cascading along with the orchestra like another instrument, other times pausing to listen, stern-faced, to the strings as they forged ahead without him.

The audience, and the artists on stage at the Bed-Stuy concert (Photos by Noah Rosenberg)
The audience, and the artists on stage at the Bed-Stuy concert (Photos by Noah Rosenberg)

As exciting as the collaboration was, both Bey and the orchestra members appeared to be somewhat out of their element. He was slightly withheld, teetering on the edge of an abandon he dealt out sparingly. The orchestra, meanwhile, worked hard to avoid getting lost completely in the aftershock of Bey’s charisma. Of course, the alchemy of this juxtaposition was largely the point.

“A lot of this was figured out on the fly,” Pierson said later, in a phone interview this spring. “That’s a challenging thing for classical musicians and orchestral players. We like to plan things out but Yasiin comes to rehearsal and he’s on. In some cases we’re not sure what he’s going to do. I expect him to keep us on our toes and add repeats and add brass. And that’s the kind of cultural clash intention that the Brooklyn Philharmonic is all about right now.”

Pierson considered Bey the perfect person to start off the Phil’s new series. “He’s brilliant and he’s lovely to work with. He’s not just some pop star. He’s totally of Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn. It’ll be hard to replace him next year.”

But did the classical music world buy this dramatically new look? Or was it considered more of a veneer, a flashy PR stunt rather than genuine innovation?

“It caught my eye because it was one of those rare moments of dynamism in New York’s musical life, where everything is nailed to the floor,” said author, novelist and classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht, who spoke with me from England.

Lebrecht, author of the arts journal Slipped Disc, which covers what he calls “shifting sound worlds” is one of this scene’s most voluble critics. The title of his most well-known book, “Who Killed Classical Music?” speaks for itself.

Norman Lebrecht (Photo courtesy Lebrecht Music&Arts)
Norman Lebrecht (Photo courtesy Lebrecht Music&Arts)

“The idea of an ensemble trying to redefine itself is very exciting,” he said of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s roaming season. “The City Opera was a different thing. It was more out of desperation.”

“When an organization gets up and says, ‘We’re going to do it differently, we’re going to try this in different places,’ my blood starts quickening,” he continued, taking it a step further by bringing New York’s most celebrated orchestra into the picture. “I haven’t seen anything like that from the New York Philharmonic in a long time.”

Lebrecht’s world revolves around this stuff. He’s written extensively on classical music and made a career out of being a controversially opinionated personality in the industry. So the fact that he noticed and approved of the Brooklyn Phil’s new look is not necessarily demonstrative of its impact on the rest of us—or even its effect on me, someone who held an instrument in her hands for decades.

For many New Yorkers, classical music is a nonentity that sneaks into their ears accidentally on elevators, while rushing to catch a train in Penn Station, or while on hold during a 311 call. And while I have spent many nights on hold, waiting to lodge a noise complaint while whistling along to a Mozart flute concerto, I can’t remember the last time I listened to this very same piece intentionally. And I’m a musician.

“There’s no reason to care for it if you’ve never heard about it,” Lebrecht told me. “The only way you’re going to start to care is by having some access to it.”

Access is what Pierson and Dare hoped to grant in bringing their orchestra to neighborhoods in Brooklyn that haven’t traditionally been exposed to the art.

“Every intelligent orchestra in the world is trying to define what it’s there for,” said Lebrecht, who giddily and almost guiltily commiserated with me about classical’s sad fate. “Up until the Second World War, they knew what they had to do. It was to get people out of the house. An orchestra was a place to go out to, and everyone needed a place to go,” he explained.

Lebrecht came to a poetic conclusion, highlighted by his proper British accent: “Now, as the dark night of the soul creeps in, as many orchestras are in deep financial trouble, the more intelligent ones are saying, ‘Are we pitching to the right audience? Do we actually like our audience?’ If you want to have a better future, you have to change your audience.”

The audience-musician relationship in classical concerts has been one of the most prohibitive elements of the craft.  At traditional halls, the audience is expected to sit still through lengthy movements, to stifle their appreciation of stellar moments, and to clap on command at the end of the piece whether they liked the music or not.

“I think this is so ridiculous,” Lebrecht scoffed when the subject of clapping came up. “People pass wind during the movements. I think people should clap when they want to clap.”

“I think we need to loosen up in the concert hall,” he went on. “I think we need to have an area for tweeting. We should have far more technology in the hall. We’ve all got devices, why not be able to use them to see the close-up of someone’s sweaty brow!”

In the time it takes to watch Justin Bieber alternate between whisper-rapping and falsetto-pleading in his music video “Boyfriend”—about three minutes— you could watch a music video by a classical composer who’s modeled his career around pushing the limits that Lebrecht mentioned.

Gabriel Prokofiev’s video “Jerk Driver” shares little more than length in common with Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” One version of the latter has been viewed 174 million times on YouTube. “Jerk Driver,” meanwhile, has slightly more than 3,000 views. In “Boyfriend,” Bieber looks longingly and seductively into the camera while an assortment of teenagers flirt in the background and dance with pointy elbows. In “Jerk Driver,” Prokofiev, the grandson of Russian master composer Sergei Prokofiev, only glances at the camera a handful of times, as if accidentally. Instead of pubescent backup dancers, Prokofiev, a London-based composer, producer, DJ and founder of the Nonclassical record label, shares the screen with cellist Peter Gregson, who slowly shreds both his bow and his outfit to pieces over the course of the composition.

“Classical music should be more present in day-to-day life,” said Prokofiev after performing at Joe’s Pub in February. “There are composers writing music that’s really got real relevance, and that’s not a three-or-four minute pop song.”

This attitude helped shaped his record label and the format of his concerts.

“I love doing informal classical gigs,” Prokofiev continued, explaining that his style is “classical music but presented in a non-classical way.”

Prokofiev expressed that reaching audiences with his music has always been a challenge, despite his venerable surname. “It really comes from my frustration that a lot of my friends and a lot of younger audiences never came to my gigs when they were in classical venues because it just doesn’t fit into most people’s lifestyles. There’s quite a small segment of society who actually go to classical concerts, particularly contemporary ones.”

My first encounter with Gabriel Prokofiev was in the summer of 2011 at the opening night of the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Anna Karenina” at the Metropolitan Opera House. He was DJ-ing the after party. Tall and slim, with blond hair and clear blue eyes, Prokofiev’s surname immediately shocked me into demonstrating an adulation that I didn’t have for the other celebrities I’d met that evening—people like filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and Yoko Ono.

As a flute player, I’d spent years attempting to master the classically infamous solo in “Peter and the Wolf,” which dances in the instrument’s highest register. Meeting a scion of Sergei Prokofiev officially made my year. My appreciation, by proxy, of the younger Prokofiev was ineffable, but obvious. While he prepared for his set, I hovered around him, smiling and watching in fascination; I was borderline creepy until I announced that I was reporting on the event for The New York Timesnightlife column “Nocturnalist” (Sadly, the detailed notes I made on the textured nuances of his music, including the use of “X-Files”-esque pizzicato strings and jagged horn blasts, didn’t make the cut. Apparently Prokofiev’s name didn’t carry as much weight as Ono’s and Aronofsky’s.)

But his last name still holds weight in his personal life and greatly affects his work.

“He had strong opinions about things,” said Prokofiev about whether his grandfather would have condoned his experimentalism. “I hope he would have been into it and not just said, ‘This is trash,’ but I think he was really a communicator with his music and it was a real important thing for him to share his music with a wider public. He wasn’t an elitist or academic composer.”

Prokofiev and I reconnected when he returned to New York in early February of this year for the premiere of his Concerto for Bass Drum & Orchestra by the Princeton Symphony. The Times’ James R. Oestreich lauded the work, calling the piece “compelling at almost every moment.”

Prokofiev’s concert—held, not at Lincoln Center or BAM, but downtown, at Joe’s Pub in the midst of a renovation—was billed as a “Nonclassical Eve.” He shared the stage with violinist Todd Reynolds and cellist Peter Gregson. The audience was close to capacity and people drank beer in the low-lit setting as Prokofiev played his silver Mac laptop like an instrument. Staring into the screen, his eyes darted back and forth while his upper body swayed to the music; dissonant strings, bass beats, distortion, and extraneous sounds. Prokofiev sipped beer along with the rest of us, and cracked jokes.

“Next, we’re going for a more emotive, expressive piece,” he said after the cellist played a Ravel piece, one of the few works performed that night that was written by a deceased composer. I was doubled over with laughter at the wisecrack, but I was alone. When the punch line depends on the audience’s knowledge that Ravel is known for his soupy modal melodies and French aesthetics, you can’t expect Louis C.K.-level guffaws.

Being born into classical royalty is not a prerequisite for being one of its warriors. DJ Eddie Marz, 41, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, was the winner of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Beethoven Remix Project contest last summer. Using a recording of the symphony, contestants were asked to remix the sounds into their own version of the piece, splicing here and cutting there, similar to how DJs remix pop songs. The winning selection was then turned back into classical music when composer Andrew Norman orchestrated their sounds for the Brooklyn Philharmonic to play at the final concert in Bed-Stuy.

DJ Eddie Marz, winner of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Beethoven Remix Project
DJ Eddie Marz, winner of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Beethoven Remix Project

Marz, née Darryl Small, is tall and broad-shouldered with a buzzed haircut. He is quick to smile and when he does, he reveals a few gold-capped teeth. A financial consultant by day and hip-hop producer by night, Marz slips easily between family-man affability and a Brooklyn rapper’s hard edge.

I spoke with Marz in January, during a film shoot for a music video he was producing in his Bushwick brownstone, where Marz lives with his wife, a fashion designer, and their four children. The Marcy Projects, where Jay-Z grew up, are just around the corner.

In his ground-floor home studio, a small room packed with CDs, records and recording equipment, Marz described how he turned a symphony into something you can dance to.

“At first, I didn’t know how to approach it. It’s like seeing a guy from high school and he’s four hundred pounds. Like, I don’t know what to say to you,” he bursts out laughing. Marz had not worked with classical music before, and was initially skeptical of the contest, which a friend working with the Brooklyn Phil had encouraged him to enter. But with time and some musical collaborators, Marz ended up with a cut that achieved his personal goal: “When I put it on, everyone’s heads bop.”

Behind the scenes with DJ Eddie Marz (Audio slideshow by Noah Rosenberg)

Inspired by the contest, Marz ended up working on a project that put classical music into a number of other tracks, taking beats from the likes of Chopin, Mozart and more Beethoven.

On that muggy June evening in Bed-Stuy, just before Yasiin Bey graced the stage, the Phil played Andrew Norman’s orchestrated version of Marz’s remix, “Ill Harmonic.”Marz stood backstage in a black suit, smiling, schmoozing, and bobbing his head, his family seated in the crowd. When the piece was over, he took his hands out of his pockets, raised them above his head, and clapped.

When writing about classical music, or art and music in general, there’s always an elephant-in-the-room caveat: It’s been done before. With art, nothing’s new and everything’s new, and talking about innovations can make the reader—especially one who fancies herself a connoisseur—roll her eyes.

Classical music and hip-hop? Have you heard Kanye West’s album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?” I mean, come on, his single “Runaway” begins with a lonely piano key dinging repetitively. Later tracks incorporate everything from a cappella choirs to virtuous cello solos. Edgy cello compositions with elaborate scenes of instrumental deterioration? Please! John Cage, Phillip Glass, Ty Braxton, Bjork—the list of musicians who’ve dominated the art could go on forever.

But that doesn’t mean it will.

“It’s a very challenging time for classical music,” admits Pierson, the Brooklyn Phil’s artistic director. Though his vision of bringing the orchestra to new parts of Brooklyn was born of optimism, it meant that certain elements had to be compromised.

“I’ve missed playing in a really great acoustic space because those are really rare,” he says. “Every concert is in a different place…every venue has to be figured out from scratch, it makes everyone’s job more challenging, but the difficulties seem worth it…The kind of experiences we’re having with the audience is what we’re getting in return.”

It’s easy to take visionaries and free thinkers for granted, to belittle the work they do, to say that classical music is doing fine because events like the Tune-In Music Festival at the Park Avenue Armory—which celebrated Philip Glass’s 75th birthday in February—were sold out.

I went to the finale concert of the Tune-In. The most memorable part of the performance was when a member of The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a small Eloise-esque girl in the front row, teetered back and forth and sat down looking as if on the verge of throwing up. What was most fascinating, though, was that neither the conductor, James Bagwell, nor the organist, Michael Riesman, paid any attention to her behavior, even though the girl was clearly on the verge of fainting and unequipped to make it through the hour’s worth of singing solfège that the piece required.

For far too long, this is the way children have been introduced to classical music; in a way that requires them to perform as adults, not children, for an audience of adults who fancy their offspring as virtuosos. This is still the way most people in the business think classical should be performed, and it’s also why one should never roll their eyes when successful collaborations occur.

The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Beethoven Remix Project introduced me to a group of students from Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, on the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill, whose foray into classical, sadly, put the Tune-In choirgirl to shame.

Known as the Swaggbrarians, the late-teens Jalan Barber, Davon Caveness, Leon Goddard, Brandon Jones and Daniel Simpson participated in the remix competition through their public school music class, which worked with classical music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation project. Lead by their music teacher, Adam Miller, the group created a contest submission, writing lyrics and rapping over their remix of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. As part of their final class project, they made a music video of the remix. Prior to this project, none of the students had a taste for classical music, but the remix competition reintroduced them to it in a way that was exciting and engaging.

Though their remix didn’t win the contest, it was one of my favorite submissions.

Watching the students mesh their lyrics with the Eroica symphony, I remembered learning the piece myself when I was in college; playing along with a CD alone in a tight practice room. Their voices, their words, became a part of the orchestral sound the way my flute did, as if their voices had been missing until now.

The Swaggbrarians perform at Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School (Photo by Rebecca White)
The Swaggbrarians perform at Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School (Photo by Rebecca White)

“I consider myself an artist,” said Jalan Barber, 17, a senior at the time, from Queens, who lists the hip-hop artists Drake and Frank Ocean among his influences, and planned to pursue music in college. “I don’t ever do one thing. I try to challenge myself. I try to test my abilities; test my talents.”

“Beethoven and I are very, very distant cousins,” he joked. “I’d never sat down and listened to a full track of Beethoven. That’s just not me. But we took something totally un-urban, totally irrelevant to the black community, and made it into a masterpiece.”