I’m writing this on a plane home from San Antonio, Texas, where I spent the past four days with the SOLI Chamber Ensemble in rehearsals and concerts. Twelve years ago they commissioned my piece Crows, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and while other groups have played it over the years, it was especially wonderful to revisit the music with the friends for whom it was originally written. It felt a bit like meeting a past childhood friend and discovering how s/he turned out as an adult! Glimpses of the unruly creature from years ago peek out behind a grown-up attitude and more sophisticated clothes.
I wanted to write about SOLI because it is a small ensemble, not based in an urban center on either coast, which is dedicated to new music and thriving. The group has been going steadily for over a decade with all members intact—even including the person who records the concerts! In addition to performances and outreach work, they commission new works and make every effort to bring the composers of the music to the concerts. At the two concerts that took place this week, composers David Heuser, Scott McAllister, and I participated in pre-concert discussions moderated by the group’s Executive Director John Clare, who is also a local personality in classical music radio and an AMC board member. Most impressive was seeing what an enthusiastic and devoted audience the group has cultivated—there is a real community around them and support comes in many forms, from having people available to help run the ticket table and set up the reception to spreading the word and bringing new people to concerts. The audience was palpably rapt during the performances, and afterwards when I asked numerous audience members if they regularly attend SOLI performances, each one quickly said, “Oh yes, I go to everything they do!” Those people wanted to be there.
The audiences were also outgoing and inquisitive, asking all sorts of interesting questions such as, “How do you figure out how to move the pitches around to the different instruments like that so the music feels like it’s moving?” And, “Do you think that music can be composed specifically for a building or a particular space?” to “Could you explain how string glissandi are written down?” Of course many of these questions and comments were preceded by the familiar opening phrases that I so wish would disappear when people want to talk about music, like “Um, I don’t really know anything about music—I mean, I’m just a listener, but…” Really? Just a listener?? Those questions indicate some seriously good listening.
It is truly exciting when audiences grow accustomed to, and in fact expect to interact with, both the musicians performing the music and the composers creating that music. This isn’t about connecting on Twitter or Facebook—it’s about being there in the flesh. The relatively simple act of personally connecting the audience to the artists can make the experience of new music incredibly satisfying for everyone involved, and especially for “just a listener.”