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Classical musicians in Pittsburgh are embracing a broader viewpoint

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony
Three members of the Pittsburgh Symphony -- Smoliar on piano, Don Evans, bass, and Andy Reamer, drums -- make up the White Tie Group.
Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society
Harlem String Quartet plays played jazz and jazz-inspired classical compositions
Pittsburgh Symphony
Next year, the Pittsburgh Symphony will present a concertco by Brazilian pianist Michel Camilo which includes elements of classical, jazz and world music
Lillian Birnbaum
Former Pittsburgh Symphony conducter Andre Previn enjoyed early success as a film composer and jazz pianist.

Recognizing categories or boundaries is useful in many ways, from clarity of thought to daily convenience. But the point at which categories begin to cross may actually be more interesting in some ways.

In July, the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society presented three “Just Summer Concerts,” an unpretentious title for an organization stepping outside of its comfort zone. Usually, the society presents straight classical music performed by top touring ensembles, mainly string quartets, playing a mix of music by old masters leavened by contemporary music.

The “Just Summer Concerts” featured three string quartets, but ones that have made their name playing a much wider variety of music. The Harlem String Quartet played jazz and jazz-inspired compositions. Brooklyn Rider's repertoire was influenced by folk music from Romania, Hungary and Persia. And the Spektral Quartet was joined by Julien Labro on bandoneon for an evening of tango.

“We offered them because there is a global new trend in chamber music in which ensembles of a very high caliber are starting to experiment mixing other genres in with classical music to create a new sound. We wanted to present that in Pittsburgh,” says Annie Mollova, the society's executive director.

But no less importantly, the “Just Summer” ensembles enabled the society to reach out to younger music lovers. The target audience was people 35 to 50 — young professionals beyond their school years and in the prime of their working lives.

“We had good turnout, the musicians talked a lot from the stage and at mixers before and after,” Mollova says. “We had a more diverse audience than we usually have, agewise and culturally.”

“Young people today tend to be very wide in their musical taste,” says veteran critic, composer and consultant Greg Sandow, who specializes in the future of classical music. Since 1997, he has been a member of the graduate studies faculty of Juilliard School in New York City, where he teaches the course “Classical Music in the Age of Pop.”

Sandow says that among younger people in classical music, there is not much boundary-making between genres. “Everybody knows there are differences and different kinds of music function differently, but value judgments are less likely to be made. People are more likely to be more interested in playing music of all types.”

He applauds the rise of multigenre musicians.

“There's an astounding number of people who play classical instruments as members of rock bands,” Sandow says. “A violinist who took my Juilliard course emailed me a couple of years later to tell me she was going to be on ‘Saturday Night Live' playing with Vampire Weekend. It was a huge thrill for her. She loved the band, loved the music, was just overjoyed. I love seeing this kind of melting of boundaries.”

Sandow, who cites the work of Princeton University sociologist Paul DiMaggio, says young audiences also are more open in their tastes.

“A different character has emerged in those 35 and under who don't make distinctions. They know what (genres) are called, but they don't separate them in their watching and listening. They might enjoy singer-songwriters, hip-hop and indie bands. They may listen to jazz and, sometimes, world music. They're not against classical except in the way it's presented, a little rarified, but I love that because I'm right there,” Sandow says.

The change in generational taste is being increasingly recognized. League of American Orchestra's president Jesse Rosen calls young people “omnivores,” a term Mollova likes.

Actually, many classical musicians have been interested in other genres for a very long time. Popular song melodies were used in medival “parody” masses. Folk music enlivened classical music long before the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. Many classical composers and performers were fascinated by jazz from the 1920s on, and Leonard Bernstein was only the most famous of classical musicians who loved the Beatles.

The inherent difficulty of blending rock and classical is the different sound worlds they inhabit — rock being amplified and classical, acoustic. Contemporary classical does use amplification, particularly for advanced instrumental techniques that would otherwise be inaudible, and for structural elements, but rarely with rock's driving rhythmic power.

The first steps of jazz into the classical concert world were blessed by the genius of George Gershwin in his “Rhapsody in Blue.” Leonard Bernstein's compositional personality was partly defined by his love of jazz. Others have been successful, too, but, often, pieces mixing jazz with classical has been unconvincing because the ingredients haven't been blended effectively or the melodic and other musical ideas were not arresting.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hopes it has a winner to present in March 2014 when Brazilian pianist Michel Camilo will perform his Piano Concerto No. 2, said to include elements of classical, jazz and world music.

Symphony English horn player Harold Smoliar is looking forward to the Camilo, but then, he says, he's been playing jazz since he was a kid. He began piano at 6, jazz at 13 or 14. Smoliar formed the Symphony Jazz Trio, now the White Tie Group, more than 20 years ago. Its current members are Smoliar on piano, Don Evans, bass, and Andy Reamer, drums.

“Duke Ellington said there's no bad music, only badly played music. I'm a big believer in the fact that music is music, and if it's good, it's good,” Smoliar says. “I'm very eclectic in my tastes and have been pretty much the whole way through my life. I like good performances. I like live music.”

Naturally. Smoliar admires Andre Previn, who enjoyed early success as a film composer and jazz pianist and continued composing for the concert hall and opera house as well as playing jazz while he was music director of top orchestras such as the London and Pittsburgh symphonies.

“This guy seems to be able to do anything,” Smoliar laughs. “He's done pretty much all kinds of music in his career. He doesn't let any kind of label restrict what he does and what he's good at. I've always loved the fact that he was as impressed with good jazz as good classical. I feel the same way.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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