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Canada

Symphony 21 test drives new approaches

Symphony 21: Inaugural Concert

When: Sept. 14, 7 p.m.

Where: 191 Alexander Street, Vancouver

Tickets and info: eventbrite.ca

Just before the 2019-20 classical season launches, a new orchestral enterprise spearheaded by conductor Jaelem Bhate aims to re-think classical orchestral music presentation. Symphony 21 — as in, a symphony for the 21st century — will play its inaugural concert Saturday evening.

Jaelem Bhate. PNG

Composer/conductor/performer Bhate started out in science at the University of B.C. before switching to music, first percussion, then conducting. He studied under Jonathan Girard and has recently received his master’s degree. He has already been hailed by as one of the CBC’s 2019 “30 under 30” hot classical musicians, and faces a busy fall of international competitions and local projects. When I caught up with him by phone last week, Bhate was in the midst of the Italian Conducting Competition in Bordighera.

Symphony 21 addresses one of the great contemporary challenges — how to interest new audiences in classical music — and Bhate’s personal experience informs his thinking.

“I did not grow up with classical music, except in film scores,” he said. “Every time I was involved in a concert, my family and my jazz friends would attend to support me, and they would love the music, but like me they knew nothing about classical traditions. So I decided to do what I would do if I could go back in time to my 19-year-old self — try to make him comfortable attending a formal concert for the first time, without any preconceptions getting in the way of his enjoyment.”

This entirely laudable aim will play out in several ways Saturday. Most obvious is the decision to avoid a formal concert hall, with all the baggage, real or perceived, that comes with those grand and sometimes intimidating venues. Symphony 21 will play in a recycled industrial space in one of increasingly trendy Railtown’s historic buildings. There will be no nonsense about dressing up, when to applaud, and all the other trappings of the old-school concert experience.

The space promises to be open, live, yet intimate with plans for an orchestra-in-the round setup; conventional seating will be backed with standing room. The music will be prefaced by social time with craft beer and wine; then a bit of pre-concert chat. The audience is encouraged to linger after the music and participate in a post-concert debriefing. A streamlined program features just two works: a new composition and Mozart’s iconic Symphony #40.

Composer Caroline Quick’s music shares program. PNG

The deliberate juxtaposition of a canonic Mozart masterwork with recently composed music is part of the vision. The latter is an accessible, folksong-oriented work, Appalachian Suite, by Portland-based Caroline Quick, who also recently completed her UBC master’s degree.

Social media is a key part of how Symphony 21 intends to change perceptions: most audience promotion has taken place online. Quick’s pre-concert talk will use Twitter to maximize interaction.

Orchestra 21 is fully professional, yet it will be full of fresh faces interested in a new type of concert experience. “It’s essentially younger professionals, freelancers from all around the Lower Mainland, a mishmash of people that I have worked with before,” says Bhate. Which partially dictates the early season scheduling: most of Symphony 21’s players will be otherwise engaged in more traditional activities a few weeks later.

A final element of the plan is ticket pricing. To battle the perception that classical concerts are a forbiddingly expensive proposition, Symphony 21 offers a “pay what you can” strategy.

Bhate’s promotional material describes Symphony 21 as “created by a millennial conductor who believes both in the innovation of the digital age as well as the timeless human beauty of orchestral music, which seeks to address these issues, not by reinventing the wheel, but by removing that wheel from the wagon and attaching it to an electric hybrid vehicle.”

And why not?

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