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Classical music arrives at SXSW

Thursday, March 13, 2008 - 09:52 AM

Composers like Liszt and Chopin may have been the rock stars of their day but the idea of classical music at South by Southwest still can seem pretty jarring in this rock-drenched setting. A chamber concert in a downtown Austin church Wednesday night presented by the publishing house Boosey & Hawkes -- the first-ever classical event at SXSW -- did have an element of the surreal. In a pre-concert chat with the performers, Gramophone magazine editor Anastasia Tsioulcas noted 'presenting classical music is the newest and most subversive thing a subversive festival could do.'

The evening's guest of honor, composer Steve Reich (pictured), described classical music at SXSW by way of analogy: 'When I was a music student in New York in the '50s I'd be sitting on a bar stool at Birdland several nights a week, going to hear ColtraneSteve Recih and Miles Davis,' said Reich, who will be interviewed by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore this afternoon. 'Maybe there's some poetic justice in the fact that you have kids here coming to hear my music now.' That was the premise -- that today's pop musicians are just as receptive to the beats, drones and repetitions in Reich's music as he was to the jazz greats of his youth (though you had to wonder what a young DJ would have made of some of the non-Reich pieces on the program, especially a 12-tone Eliot Carter piece).

The more obvious purpose of the event was to introduce Boosey's composers to the television and advertising music supervisors who attend SXSW. There was certainly a healthy turnout -- a diverse audience that ranged from twenty-somethings in skinny jeans to industry types and a smattering of hardcore classical music fans.

How was it? As a whole the performances were excellent. The percussion quartet So Percussion blazed through a movement of Reich's Drumming and musicians from San Antonio's own SOLI chamber ensemble gave polished renditions of works like Elena Kats Chernin's 'Eliza's Aria' - a piece that has been used in a commercial for Lloyds of London bank.

If I had one gripe it was the overly hushed, formal atmosphere of the event. The classical world generally has trouble knowing how to seem hip and approachable without 'dumbing down' or coming across as cheesy; it's a fine line and yet somehow, all the formal concert garb, the ritualized entrances and bows, the no-drinks policy, the long pauses between movements where no one dared clap probably seemed strange to a good many young audience members. In all, it was great to see Boosey moving into the rockers' territory but you couldn't help but think -- as revelers could be heard out on the street below -- that the gulf between the two worlds was wider than it needed to be.

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