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.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, March 31 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason: Skelja (Bedroom Community)

I’ve always been a fan of the contemporary Icelandic label Bedroom Community, which seems to produce a steady stream of magic in its new music offerings. Processions is the debut album of Daníel Bjarnason, and it holds some musical treasures. One is the final track, Skelja, a work for harp and what seems to be a small collection of pitched gongs. The percussion adds a drowsy color to the spare notes of the harp solo, a faint background of dark hues. This is a tender harp work that truly has something to say, and I enjoy listening to it again and again. – Geoffrey Larson


Robin Pecknold: White Winter Hymnal (Portland Cello Project)

Image result for fleet foxes white winter hymnal portland cello projectThis 2.5 minute gem makes me long for winter, even as milder temperatures and cherry blossoms are among us. If I dare say, the Portland Cello Project puts even MORE warmth into this soothing, soulful tune than the original version by the Fleet Foxes. Trumpeter John Whaley soars effortlessly above the cellos with the melody, drifting in and out with ease. I might just have to seek out a trail that still has some snow on it this weekend….  – Maggie Stapleton


Mason Bates: Observer in the Magellanic Cloud (Chanticleer)

Image result for mason bates observer in the magellanic cloudI love this track not only because of the novel subject matter (a distant satellite observing human activity on the Earth) but also because of how it bridges the gap between humanity and technology.  Even while it presents the satellite as a distant observer, out there in the cold blackness and sterility of space, the connection between the satellite and the humans it observes manages to anthropomorphize the machine just enough to make the relationship seem intimate.  Maybe our computerized future won’t be so bad, after all. – Seth Tompkins

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Album Reviews of 2016

You can count on Second Inversion for Album Reviews of the latest and greatest new releases. These are the top 5 most popular reviews of 2016!

#5: Jessie Montgomery: Strum (Azica)

download-26The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry, and politics, crafting a unique and insightful newmusic perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history. And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility. – Maggie Molloy


#4: Northwestern University Cello Ensemble: Shadow, Echo, Memory (Sono Luminus)

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As the album continues onward from the Rachmaninov through the Mahler, it becomes clear that the Ensemble has achieved their purported goal of using the cello to express textures of dark and light, bring to life sounds and images from another time, and finally to aid listeners in revisiting their own histories. It does indeed provide a fascinating, haunting individual experience to those who are up for a little soul-searching. – Brendan Howe


#3: Contact: Discreet Music by Brian Eno (Cantaloupe Music)

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As performers, Contact makes the music their own—and as listeners, so do we. With precision, patience, and the utmost reverence, Contact recreates Eno’s ambient masterwork as an echo chamber of circling motives and mismatched musical textures. Each ripple of the repetitious melody is a perfectly crafted piece of the larger pattern, a discreet but unique little gem in and of itself. – Maggie Molloy


#2: Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Mason Bates’ Mothership (BMOP/Sound)

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Part of what makes this music great is its versatility: it’s at home in so many different settings, from the venerated orchestral concert hall, to the sweaty dance club, to your living room on a Tuesday night. – Geoffrey Larson


#1: Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here” Symphonic featuring Alice Cooper with the London Orion Orchestra (Decca)

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Fans of Pink Floyd will definitely enjoy the musical fantasia of Wish You Were Here Symphonic.  Those who are less familiar with Pink Floyd will also find a lot to love in this recording.  You listen to this album for the symphonic arrangements and in every way they deliver.

This was Smith’s first go at producing an album by himself and I’d call it a great success.  I hope to hear symphonic versions of Pink Floyd’s other classics in the future.  Hint hint, Pete Smith.  Tell us, where will you go from Here? – Rachele Hales

Four Tips for Classical Musicians Beginning Improv (I wrote this on the fly)

by Joshua Roman
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If you’re a classically trained musician, chances are you can play a number of complex pieces on demand, by memory, you can look at a piece of music you’ve never seen before and decipher the symbols on the page in real time (sight reading), or at least you can rather quickly learn a piece and bring it to performance level. Are you, however, comfortable playing along with music you like on the non-classical station? Can you sit in with your friends and make up a tune, a countermelody, or catch the bass line the first time around?

With the “classical” sensibility that has been cultivated over the last century, the latter set of skills may sound superfluous. Crack open that history book, though, and you’ll see that improv has been integral to musicianship for centuries. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (name pretty much any musician from before the 20th century) – they all knew how to improvise. Their level of improv was fairly high, in some cases arguably the main reason for their original fame. While that’s an intimidating standard, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of even a basic level of improv comfort are tremendous.

The most difficult part of improv for someone who is used to preparing for hours, days, weeks before letting anyone hear a piece of music, is letting go of that control. The fear of playing something wrong is important to overcome, but I’ve discovered a few helpful mantras/tools:


1. Don’t compare your improv to the music you usually play.
If you spend most of your time playing the music of the greats, you might have totally unrealistic expectations. Those sounds were organized by veritable masters, and have proven the test of time. That’s not necessary for improv purposes! Simple, easy, accessible, creative, and above all, YOU, is what’s important here.

2. Start small.
I mean this in every way possible. Start in a room where no one can hear you, if you need to! Sometimes it’s useful to just play one note over and over again (an ostinato) until you get tired of it and naturally move on. Or, put on a song you listen to all the time, figure out the melody or the bass line, and then gradually begin to find other notes in between. Sometimes I even like to hold one note through a chord pattern, and feel the tension modulate as the chords underneath shift.

3. Allow yourself repetition.
When I was ten or eleven, my dad started having me play with his band on Sunday nights at church. I’ll never forget his reply when I asked about the sheet music – he said “you’ll figure it out. If you don’t like the note you’re playing, play a different one.” Kind of to the contrary, he also said “if you play a ‘wrong’ note, play it until you make it the ‘right’ note.” Basically, if you do something that doesn’t quite fit, you can incorporate the “mistake” into your next phrase, thereby “fixing” the mistake retroactively by use of repetition. So much of music is about how we play with expectations – so a keen awareness of patterns can take us into super cool and new places, and help us let go of the fear of “messing up” in improv.

4. Do your thing.
The most beautiful thing about improv is that it comes from you. It can begin to reflect your own unique voice – your sense of style and the elements of music that are most important to you. Find yourself listening to Lady Gaga when you’re not practicing excerpts? Great place to start! Simple chord patterns, a consistent beat, tunes you can pick up easily. Love the structure of techno with its beat drops and long arcs? That’s a fun way to learn to read what’s coming next. Want to get inside the mind of Dvorak and his Cello Concerto? Take the main theme and riff on it – how would you develop the material differently? One of my favorite things to do in school was to turn out the lights in a practice room and just start “following the sound.” Sometimes melodic, sometimes strange and wonderful fragments, sometimes just a rhythm would emerge. Letting go of expectations is key.

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Photo Credit: Bret Hartman

The benefits of learning to improv become apparent very quickly. First off, it opens up so many collaborative possibilities! It also gives you a very powerful entry point into any composer’s music. When you start to see all of the choices the composer did not make, the choices they did make paint a stronger picture. One of the more amusing results of becoming comfortable with improv is less fear of memory slips. I say “amusing” as I think of the times I’ve heard myself and others wander off script, and the hilarious (and therefore less awkward) paths back to the written score. Perhaps most importantly, as this skill develops, it gives you insight into your own artistic voice. When all the musical choices are yours, your priorities emerge much more clearly. This process of self-discovery is absolutely essential in order to cultivate an understanding of what you offer to your listeners and colleagues.

In my own musical life, improv has gone far beyond those beginning days of an added cello line to the band. I improvise all of my cadenzas when I perform Haydn Concertos, I’ve improvised entire pieces on stages including the TED stage, and collaborations with artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, DJ Spooky, Anne Patterson, We Are Golden (“Just Every Fisher’s Folly” and “Allen in February and March”), Mason Bates, have all come about because of comfort making notes up on the spot. And I’m not even very good at it, just willing!

Let’s hear what you’ve got. Share your stories, through improv video or otherwise.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, October 14 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

1045-bates-cover-1600Mason Bates: Mothership (BMOP/sound)

Some combinations are wonderful despite the unintuitive relationship of their component parts.  Mason Bates’s Mothership contains such a combination.  You wouldn’t think that live electronics, a full orchestra, and NASA spaceship sound samples would go well together with the sound of the guzheng, but they do.  So sit back, grab some cream cheese for that hot-dog, and enjoy Mothership. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Etude No.12; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

dsl-92205-dreaming-awake-coverI‘m a total nut for minimalism and usually turn to it when working, running, cooking, commuting, exploring, just about anything. So, I was thrilled to discover Dreaming Awake, a recently released 2-disc journey of Philip Glass’ piano music guided by Bruce Levingston. Ten of his etudes are tucked in between and around The Illusionist Suite, Wichita Vortex Suite (with guest vocals from Ethan Hawke), Dreaming Awake, and Metamorphosis No.2, for an asymmetric but balanced collection.

I hope you catch Etude No.12 on Second Inversion today. Whereas his first 10 etudes were written primarily as exercises for improving technique, his later etudes are more expressive and emotional. No.12 to me is characteristically “Glass” in many ways – repetitive, steady, with rhythmic, driving arpeggios, and also a somber depth. The musical colors are incredibly poignant in this tribute to American painter Chuck Close, who temporary lost (but later regained) the ability to paint due to a spinal aneurysm. Glass depicts this emotional battle in the music, Levingston communicates it with is playing, and the producers at Sono Luminus record it with such mastery, yielding a stand-out new release in the contemporary classical realm. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Stephen Suber: Soleil; Ars Brunensis Chorus (Centaur)

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The best music is music that convinces you there is no other music in the world.  This week Stephen Suber’s “Soleil” did that for me.  He describes the composition as “an orchestral piece without the orchestra,” using only the dynamic human voice to create rhythms and harmonies that grow more complex as the piece continues.  Baritones sub as the double bass, tenors become cellos, and percussion is provided by plosives, sibilants, and fricatives.  This composition is from his album Starlit and, when asked about it in an interview, Suber refers specifically to “Soleil” when he states that the singers “came so close to reading my mind.  They nailed it.”  With a review like that it’s no wonder he cites this as his favorite work from the album! – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Richard Reed Parry: Heart and Breath Sextet;  yMusic and Nico Muhly
(Deutsche Grammophon)

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Richard Reed Parry is one of those musicians who really writes from the heart—in this case, literally. His “Heart and Breath Sextet” throws all time signatures out the window and instead instructs the performers to play, well, to the beat of their hearts.

The piece comes from his introspective opus, Music for Heart and Breath: a series of compositions which uses the performers’ hearts and lungs as the performance parameters. Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and very quietly) in order to stay in sync with their own heartbeat, thus resulting in a beautifully irregular ebb and flow—a soft and serene watercolor come to life.

And as you can imagine, no two hearts beat exactly in time. For this sextet, performed by yMusic with Nico Muhly on piano, the result is a pointillistic effect: starts and stops are staggered, melodies fall out of sync with one another, harmonies bend delicately up and down.

And every once in a while, one of those softly sighing melodies falls in sync with your own heart and breath—a gentle reminder of just how musical it is to be alive. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

The Importance of Run Throughs

by Joshua Roman

“It’s the same balance beam.”

The analogy my dad favored when it came to preparing for a performance was that of a gymnast at the Olympics. The beam is the same whether there are judges or not. The cello is the same, and the music the same, whether there is an audience or not. It’s something I’ve reminded myself of many times over the years, particularly when I used to do competitions as a student.

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Working out the kinks of my song cycle with Jessica Rivera, Mae Lin, Richard Belcher, Todd Palmer, Andrew Rehrig, and Conor Hanick in a casual studio run through.

And on one hand, it’s true. If you can tune everything out and magnify your focus on the details of the task at hand, you can do a much better job of repeating the process you’ve honed in the practice room. Execution becomes a habit, and distractions fall by the wayside once you get into that zone you’ve cultivated over and over again.

On the other hand, music is about communication. One of the exciting things about an audience is that they bring energy, and that energy is borne of a desire to experience a shared moment. A moment that is your responsibility as the performer to guide and shape with sensitivity to the dynamics of the relationship between the music, the audience, the other performers, and yourself. To achieve this means rather than tuning the audience out, opening up to their particular energy and incorporating that into your own experience.

But that can be a scary thing! Most, if not all of us, have felt the strange sensation of playing a piece in front of a live person for the first time and discovering that some of the technical or musical aspects that never quite clicked in the practice room are suddenly natural and fluid. Vice versa, some moments or passages are more challenging when all eyes are on us for the first time. So, while a mantra like “It’s the same balance beam” can help calm the mind or nerves and bring us back to the familiar, how do we practice feeling and using the elevated sensations and energy of a performance with a live audience to enhance the experience?

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LACO’s premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

My answer: run throughs. While I was in school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was immersed in a friendly culture of shared enthusiasm for the learning process, and happily acclimated to the environment around me. My classmates and I were always pulling each other into the practice room to play through something, just to get that sense of what might change when a piece became performative (and, helpful comments afterwards – it’s always good to learn how what you are doing is perceived by someone who can’t read your mind). Over the years since I’ve left school I’ve continued this practice to some degree, but I always notice a huge difference when I don’t manage to make the time.

I recently performed a piece for the first time, and unfortunately I didn’t get organized early enough to do a run through with a pianist ahead of time. I spent many extra hours with the score to make up for it, so at the first rehearsal, while I didn’t have the tactile memory of making micro adjustments that are necessary whenever sharing the interpretive process, at least I caught up quickly. Still, when I compare that feeling to the numerous times I’ve run through a new concerto with a pianist before the first rehearsal, there’s a huge difference. A few years ago, I was incredibly lucky to have concertos written for me by my friends Aaron Jay Kernis and then Mason Bates. In each case, we went through the piece with a pianist (Aaron on his, and Carlos Avila with Mason’s) multiple times. The point was twofold; 1) make sure the pieces were working the way we wanted, and all tempo markings etc., were in line with the composers’ wishes, and 2) be ready to show up at the first rehearsal with orchestra as prepared as I would be if these were pieces of standard repertoire I’d been playing since I was 12.

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I’m happily present while Jonah Kernis and his dad Aaron run the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto for a small gathering before an upcoming performance.

Who knows if I actually achieved the latter to the degree I wanted (being something of a perfectionist, I always find myself falling short). But I can certainly say I knew the music backwards and forwards and felt ready and excited to take it to the next level from the moment we began rehearsals. In both cases, this was no fewer than 3 “performances” in front of friends and colleagues, as few as one or two on the couch in the living room or as many as 15 in a rented space. The number of people is not nearly as important as the number of times running through. Learning how to take risks means actually taking risks, and being okay with people seeing you fail. Along the way, you figure out that even within a particular style or piece, there’s plenty of room for variations on success in a performance. There’s no true reproduction of what happened in the practice room or the last run through, but the confidence of knowing how to ride the wave of the moment comes through experience.

These were new works that no one had ever heard before. I say, however, that the same rule applies to Haydn or Elgar, which I’ve played many times. It always goes better if you show up with experience under your belt. So grab a friend, pull them into your practice room, and find out what you actually need to work on when you get back to your practice routine.

May your mind be clear and focused, your emotions flow freely and powerfully through the music, and may your fingers find their mark.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts Seth and Maggie S. (and community member Brendan Howe) each share a favorite selection from the Friday 4/8/16 playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Mason Bates: Desert Transport (BMOP/sound)

1045-Bates-cover-1600This week, I chose a piece that reminds me that I’m just a sucker for certain things. Two of those things are the majestic landscapes of the American West and good brass writing, both of which are present in ample measure in Mason Bates’s Desert Transport. Inspired by a helicopter ride over the Arizona desert, this is a well-balanced exploration of the beauty and complexity of the American Southwest that operates on multiple levels. It has the charmingly indulgent and innocently sincere moments of musical Americana that you might expected of a large-scale orchestra work about the Western landscape, but those are balanced with inward-looking moments that suggest a less nationalistic, more humbling consideration of the landscape at hand. Listen especially for a field recording of Pima tribal musicians, which is expertly interwoven with the live performance via offstage speakers. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this recording.


Finnegan Shanahan: The Great Sunstroke (New Amsterdam)

The_Two_Halves_Album_CoverIt’s no secret that I love pretty much everything that the New Amsterdam record label produces. I’m prone to gushing about them in my commentary on the Second Inversion stream and to my friends – particularly those who don’t have a clear understanding what “contemporary classical and cross-genre music” really means – because New Amsterdam constantly hits the nail on the head with releasing music that truly rethinks classical. One of the most recent releases is The Two Halves, a geographically-inspired song cycle from 22-year-old Finnegan Shanahan and the ensemble Contemporaneous. The 6 songs are based on a map of the Hudson River Railroad ~1852 and moves along the Hudson River to the Catskills and across the country to the Jemez Mountains and beyond. The Great Sunstroke captures this intersection of deft composition with popular song and folk music. It’s not quite classical, it’s not quite pop, and it falls in that beautiful in-between place with constant energy that keeps me excited about the evolution of music in the 21st century. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this recording.


Daníel Bjarnason: Emergence (Bedroom Community)

Daniel Bjarnason Over Light EarthDaníel Bjarnason’s 2013 album Over Light Earth opens with two pieces commissioned by the LA Philharmonic, which respond to paintings by abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The Icelandic composer delivered in magnificently ominous terms, capturing the early Cold War anxieties expressed by both painters in their starkly divergent styles.

Using unconventionally close micing and multi-tracking, Bjarnason accentuates each instrument’s individual character to great effect. The triptych Emergence and the five movements of Solitudes take the listener through a labyrinth of grainy strings, prepared piano à la John Cage, and buoyant woodwinds, all of which conspire to create the album’s pervasive sense of intimacy and unpredictability. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this recording.