From Concert Hall to Capitol Hill Nightclub: Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra’s SPARK

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to classical music, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra likes to think outside the concert hall. This Saturday, Second Inversion is thrilled to sponsor the launch of SMCO’s new SPARK performance series: an immersive concert experience that presents classical music old and new in nightclubs and other unexpected venues.

“It’s every musician’s dream for their friends who have no experience with classical music to enjoy this incredible art form as much as we do,” said Geoffrey Larson, Music Director of SMCO. “I wanted to provide a space to enjoy classical music without any rules, real or perceived: where audience members could have a drink, get up and dance, applaud and scream and shout whenever they want. I wanted to show how music of the classical genre can be relevant to our lives today—whether it was composed 300 years ago or three days ago.”

The series launch, which takes place amid the neon lights of the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill, features music from both eras. The concert unfolds as a fully-produced, continuous musical experience that oscillates between guest artist DJ Suttikeeree’s electronic dance music sets and SMCO’s electrifying classical music performances.

Under Geoffrey Larson’s baton, SMCO pairs a Vivaldi chamber concerto with Max Richter’s modern recomposition of the Baroque master’s famous Four Seasons. The centerpiece of the evening is Mason Bates’ infectious and aptly-titled Rise of Exotic Computing for sinfonietta and laptop, and a world premiere of a new work for horns and orchestra by William Rowe—co-commissioned and performed by SMCO and the Skylark Quartet—rounds out the program. Electronic interludes from DJ Suttikeeree provide both dynamic contrasts and fluid connections between the evening’s wide-ranging works.

“Suttikeeree will be spinning his own brand of electro-hop, mixing in fragments of the orchestral music our audience will hear onstage and providing a heartbeat that ties together the different genres throughout the night,” Larson said.

The first of its kind in Seattle, the SPARK series was created with the guidance of composer and producer Gabriel Prokofiev, whose orchestral arrangement of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back” premiered to viral success with the Seattle Symphony in 2014. The grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel is also the founder of the Nonclassical record label and Club Night series based in London.

“Gabriel was extremely helpful in helping me strategize three things: what role the DJ should play in the event, how to structure the general ‘flow’ of the evening, and (to a lesser extent) what sort of music we should consider performing,” Larson said. “Through trial and error, Gabriel has come up with a pretty strong and unique concept for the flow of the larger Nonclassical Club Night events, and this sort of timing has been adapted into our plans for the SPARK series.”

Like Nonclassical Club Nights, the SPARK series aims to create immersive, cross-disciplinary performances that redefine the rules of classical chamber music, breaking away from the constraints of the traditional concert hall and sparking new and inspiring collaborations.

The SPARK series launch is this Saturday, May 20 at 8pm at the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill. Click here for tickets and more information.


by Jill Kimball

A Seattle-born musician and composer caused quite a stir last week when he visited Benaroya Hall for a performance with the Seattle Symphony.

Sir Mix-A-Lot with the Seattle Symphohny

Photo: Ben VanHouten for The New York Times

The musician in question has a keen ear for rhythmic detail and often finds inspiration in electronic music. He in turn inspired a series of pieces by Gabriel Prokofiev, the talented and musically adventurous grandson of Sergei. The Seattle Symphony’s Artistic Director, Ludovic Morlot, took to the podium over the weekend to premiere Prokofiev’s latest work with the orchestra as part of its Sonic Evolution series.

The Seattle Symphony premieres new works by avant-garde composers at least a handful of times every year, so why the commotion? It’s because that as-yet-unnamed musician is actually hip-hop artist Sir Mix-A-Lot, whose 1992 breakout hit “Baby Got Back” is included in Prokofiev’s latest suite dedicated to Mix-A-Lot’s complex beats. In the weekend performance, the rapper invited several dozen female audience members onstage to dance along as he and the Symphony performed Prokofiev’s remix of the famous ode to derrières.

After watching the video, all of us at Second Inversion launched into a discussion about the Sonic Evolution series, about genres, about the future of music. We weren’t the only ones. I noticed conversations popping up all over my Facebook feed, on Twitter, even on the Metro bus during my commute. I heard a lot of the same questions posed: Does the Symphony need a video of women getting down to a popular song in Benaroya Hall to stay relevant? Does the association with Gabriel Prokofiev really turn this dyed in the wool hip-hop song into something classical? Is a group of world-class, classically-trained musicians “selling out” when it performs Top 40 music? The most scathing comment I saw: “This … is not music and does not belong in Benaroya.”

Take a look at the last three seasons under Ludovic Morlot’s baton and you’ll see that the Seattle Symphony has offered an increasingly wide variety of concert experiences to attract new audiences while still embracing traditional classical music. The day before Sir Mix-A-Lot’s performance, the Symphony played Ravel and Dutilleux before a silent, reverent, seated audience. A few weeks ago, the Symphony performed new and old music featuring a handful of SSO instrumentalists, a pair of turntables and a few other instrument oddities in the Benaroya lobby, where audience members took in the concert sitting on carpet squares, piling into small booths or milling around the walkways above. (That full concert, by the way, is available on demand below.)

When concerts of Mozart, Debussy and Rachmaninoff are still abundant–just flip through the Symphony’s 2014-15 brochure to find out how abundant–I have to wonder why those who enjoy the traditional Symphony experience are intent on keeping the music that doesn’t appeal to them out of the concert hall.

From where I sit, music does not, cannot exist in one dimension at a time. Many of the decades-trained musicians we see performing the classical canon onstage enjoy listening to non-classical music and often enjoy playing it, too. John Williams is a composer, but his well-rounded musical résumé includes more than just classical credits. Most of the composers we’ve met in our studios draw from a handful of musical genres to write their music. Sir Mix-A-Lot, then, is more than a rapper: he, like Wiliams and Prokofiev and so many others, is simply a musician who appreciates the work of other musicians.

I won’t attempt to answer the question we’ve all asked at some point–what is a musician?–except to say that musicians can still be musicians even if we don’t like them. A few here at Second Inversion admitted Sir Mix-A-Lot’s performance didn’t really “work” for them. But judging from the feedback on that YouTube video, it worked for more than a million others.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this concert was purposefully scheduled to cap off the annual American League of Orchestras conference, hosted this year by the Seattle Symphony. That means Ludovic Morlot made a conscious decision to conduct his orchestra alongside a rapper and dozens of booty-shaking women for a room full of America’s most influential leaders in classical music. In doing so, he wasn’t just attracting young people in order to sell tickets: he was telling the guardians of classical music to rethink tradition. He demanded that they listen to something completely radical and asked them to do nothing more than consider it.