Time for Three: in concert in Greensboro, North Carolina

Last November and December, I heard and enjoyed the group (violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicholas Kendall, and bassist Ranaan Meyer) Time for Three (Tf3) a couple of times on NPR’s Performance Today. They are classically trained musicians with an interest in improvisation and old time country fiddling. Zachary De Pue is son of Wallace De Pue, one of my college theory teachers. Naturally, I was excited to learn that they planned to perform in my current home town with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and attended the January 23, 2010 concert.

The program opened with a rarely-played concerto for three violins and string orchestra by Vivaldi. GSO conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky joined De Pue and Kendall as soloist. After the full orchestra took the stage and Sitkovetsky traded his violin for his baton, Meyer joined his Tf3 colleagues for a new concerto written for them by Jennifer Higdon. Once that was over Tf3 played a jam session, comprising an improvised take-off on Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance no. 5” and “The Orange Blossom Special,” a cut from their brand new CD. The program closed with Schubert’s great C major symphony.

I’m sure that nearly everyone involved in classical music has looked at the graying of the audience and frequently unadventurous programming, read all the accounts of how classical music is becoming irrelevant, and wondered what can be done to preserve it for another generation. This program may hold part of the answer.

The name Vivaldi is well known to concert goers, but orchestras play only a fraction of his output, which not only includes concertos, but lots of sacred music (much more than the justly well-loved Gloria) and dozens of operas, only recently explored much. The “usual suspects” are popular for good reason, but opening a program that also includes a local premiere of a modern work with an unknown Vivaldi concerto seems a bold stroke.

Kendall announced from the stage that Higdon has won two Grammy awards and is one of the most frequently performed living American composers. In looking for more information about her, I learned that she graduated from Bowling Green State University, like I did, and therefore probably had classes with Wallace De Pue. Small world.

I found the concerto delightful, if a bit long. It is certainly not a profound work, but since when does everything on a symphony concert have to be profound? Neither is very much of Vivaldi’s output. Higdon teaches at the Curtis Institute for Music, where Tf3 first formed, and so has close familiarity with the group’s love of country fiddling and improvisation. She based the concerto on both of these enthusiasms. I suppose the outer movements are written out, limiting most of the improvisation to the second movement, where the orchestra is silent.

Since Felix Mendelssohn first introduced the whole concept of a standard repertoire to orchestral programming, the percentage of new music on symphonic concerts has steadily declined. Throughout most of the twentieth century, many composers had greater interest in “educating” the audience rather than writing music to please it.

After the Second World War, the academically respectable composers (there’s a red flag if I ever saw one) seemed to develop a deep contempt for symphony concert audiences. New music became box office poison, as concert-goers simply assumed that they would not like the piece inevitably stuck right before intermission . That concert order forced people to come in time to hear the first work and not walk out before the final work, which were probably favorite old war horses.

Over at least the past thirty years, a new generation has arisen that really wants to write music capable of giving audiences the same enjoyment that the standard repertoire does. More than 200 orchestras have performed Higdon’s blue cathedral. That’s a good start. Now, how many of them have played it several times, so audiences can get to know it?

Most of the audience greeted the concerto Higdon wrote for Tf3 with enthusiasm. The woman next to me kept her arms tightly folded during the applause and told me she thought it very ugly. She did enjoy the jam session.

Brahms might not have recognized his Hungarian Dance at all. Tf3 added some of the look and feel of country fiddling, unexpected modulations, and occasional other tunes, including one from Fiddler on the Roof. At one point, both De Pue and Kendall played the same violin at the same time, and that was not the only part of the performance that elicited laughter.

Here, then, are two aspects of this concert worthy of repetition in orchestras all over the country: 1) Perform new music written with the intention of pleasing the audience (even if not everyone likes every piece). 2) Inject some humor and spontaneity in the presentation of the concert–not necessarily the same way Tf3 did–in order to break up the perceived snobbishness and rigidity of the symphonic routine.

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