• Peter J Felice

A/Tonal: A New Experience

In preparation for their upcoming performance, the contemporary ensemble A/Tonal shared a blog post having to do with changing the face of classical music etiquette in order to welcome additional classes of people into our musical world. Although I didn’t totally agree with the implication that these things MUST be put into action (there is still a lot of room for old farts like me who are quite fond of many of the conventions), I was intrigued and curious, as well as compelled to see these liberties taken in a live setting. (You can read the blog posthere) Fortunately, a few of these trends – specifically Applauding at the End of Movements, Tweeting During the Concert, Engaging the Audience – were adopted by A/Tonal and installed in their Fall show which I had the pleasure of attending Saturday night. Applauding at the End of Movements – As musicians, we have ALL been there before! Speaking, of course, of the frustration of hearing the middle movement of a really nice piece and having someone (who we assume is uneducated on concert etiquette) applaud whilst much of the members conform to the trend and begin applauding as well. This often occurs despite the fact the different movements are clearly listed in the program. When I performed The Planets with the Louisville Philharmonia a few years ago, this happened at the end of the really exciting movements (You know what they are – the movements that every single Drum and Bugle Corps has developed an affinity for). I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it bothered me. However, A/Tonal’s wonderful MC, Daniel Gilliam, invited people to fully utilize this behavior at their fall concert, and although I am from the old school of traditional concert etiquette, I joined in as well. The only drawback is that because it happened after EVERY movement, it felt as though we had just replaced an old tradition with a potential new one and I’m not sure that was the point. Still, maybe eventually we will evolve to a society that accepts and understands clapping after the movements that deserve a loud display of appreciation.

Tweeting During the Concert – Initially, this one sounded pretty risky. It is important to note that Mr. Gilliam did lay out a set of ground rules to avoid being a distraction to those who wanted to be fully engaged in the music. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and I had to at least wait till the end of a piece or intermission.

Full Engaging the Audience – Surprisingly, this practice was not a new concept to me. In fact, I would even go as far to say that it is becoming the norm for classical and contemporary music concerts. In all of the ensembles I was in while doing my undergrad at IU Southeast, the conductor (or a compere, if we were lucky) would introduce each piece of music prior to playing it. It is sometimes a substitute for having program notes written in a tiny font that no one can read under dim lights, and it makes a lot of sense. What helps is having as good of a Master of Ceremonies as Daniel Gilliam. He spoke with great charisma and it was obvious that he had connected well with his audience, despite his implied slam on my hometown (no offense taken, of course. I found it comical) A/Tonal did not stop there. During the performance of Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, I was astonished to see the pianist, Jessica Dorman, and her page turner leave their positions and sit down at the edge of the stage, engaging in a ‘thumb war.’ This was an innovation taken by the ensemble as a visual representation of the movement titled ‘Game’, and it was brilliant. With the quality of recordings being what they are today, these concerts are needing to become more about the experience than the music, and visual aspects are becoming extremely important. Why would you go to a concert if you have a strong enough sound system to feel as though the orchestra is performing in your living room? If silly gimmicks like playing games on stage is too complicated for you to organize, why not do something as simple as mess with the lighting – another technique this team used in their solo pieces, most in particular – Zoomtube. Let’s talk about that piece for a minute….

Zoomtube, by Ian Clarke, is a piece for solo flute that has the instrumentalist do everything EXCEPT play as the flute was originally intended to be played. Amy Ensel’s performance of the very difficult piece was exceptional. From pitchbends to multiphonics (simultaneous playing and singing by an individual), and even bellowing out vocally at one point, she had clearly mastered the work and it was exhilarating to watch. The choice to pick this tune needs to be recognized as well. One of the blog author’s suggestions that I did not talk about was picking at least one contemporary piece per concert. I want to go to the next level with this and say you should pick something that chances are very few people have heard before. Zoomtube was an instant attention-getter and it kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Not just from the music, but from Ensel’s rhythmic body movements as she gradually walked down the line of music stands she needed to eliminate the need for page turns (It would have been impossible for her to turn pages in this piece.) Seeing this piece performed live was a much bigger treat than just hearing the “music” alone.

Finally, I would like to address Carrie Ravenscraft’s performance of my work for solo clarinet, Perceptions of Strife (2011), that was part of the program Saturday night. The inclusion of the piece was suggested by my former teacher, Erich Stem, who is currently engaged to Ms. Ravenscraft. It does not need to be considered that Ravenscraft is expecting in January, rather it should increase the level of amazement for her performance. I don’t know if there is a better way to put this, but I was not very kind to the clarinet when I wrote this piece and I have the performer doing foot stomps, pitch bends, crescendo’s out of nientes (silent dynamics) as well as playing in extreme registers. But what was more impressive to me was the level of passion and musicianship Carrie had put into the piece. She was fearless in extending long notes well past their written duration and coloring the music with expressionistic rubato. And her intensity in the upper register was mind-shattering. It was clear to me that she had made the piece her own, and while I may had written notes on the page it was her that has been keeping the music very much alive. I sincerely hope to work on further collaborations with this brilliant musician. Overall, A/Tonal’s Fall Experience was just that: An Experience. And I mean that as a very endearing description. Concerts SHOULD be about the experience more than just hearing the music. With the accessibility of recordings being what it is today, we NEED to rely on giving people something they can only get by existing in the concert hall in order to survive. I applaud the efforts and success of A/Tonal and encourage further innovations as they move forward. Their next concert is in June – as soon as I get a date I will add it to my Events page and I strongly recommend attending if you are able to. You will not be disappointed! - PJF