Innovative Collaboration Presents New Vision of Musical Concerts
Musicians sit behind music stands in a crescent around a conductor’s podium at the front of the stage. The conductor walks out, takes a bow and, facing away from the audience, directs the players through the music.
If you’ve been to an orchestra or band concert before, then you’ve seen the usual concert routine. But Scott Jones, professor and associate director of bands at the Ohio State University School of Music, is crafting performances with one of his ensembles differently these days. And the results are anything but predictable.
Taking cues from the world of theatrical performance, Jones is reimagining what a band concert could be like. He’s bringing his new vision – complete with staging and costumes – to a collaboration between the OSU Symphonic Band and Columbus’ resident professional early music ensemble, The Early Interval. The fruits of that collaboration will be presented in a free public performance of selections from 16th-century Belgian composer Tielman Susato’s compendium of dances, La Danserye, on Wed., Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. at Weigel Auditorium in OSU’s Timashev Family Music Building. A second performance will take place at the Ohio Music Education Association Professional Development Conference on Feb. 3 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Both performances will showcase innovative staging for Susato’s well-known dances. Instead of sitting behind music stands and playing their instruments in typical concert fashion, the musicians will stand on small platforms placed around the stage and periodically move about onstage while playing from memory.
Jones says two fundamental questions are driving this theatrical conception of performing Susato’s beloved dances.
“What’s the experience that an audience member’s having at our performance, and how does it change when we remove music stands?” Jones said.
Jones was inspired to ask these questions after reading Completing the Circle: Considerations for Change in the Performance of Music (GIA Publications, 2014) by Bud Beyer, the former chair of Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre. Beyers wrote the book after decades performing as a mime, mentoring aspiring actors and working with musicians around the world, including Northwestern University’s noted wind ensemble conductor, John Paynter.
Beyer urges musicians to consider the experience that audience members have when they come to a live musical performance. He also asserts that relying on music stands during performances places physical barriers between the musicians and the audience and limits creative possibilities in performance.
“When you consider (Beyer’s) perspective as a theater professional, there’s a certain wisdom to that,” Jones said. “That’s why eventually actors get off book and begin to memorize.”
So last fall Jones asked the musicians of the OSU Symphonic Band to memorize their parts to several dances from Susato’s La Danserye. Then he coached the band for an October performance of those works – minus the music stands.
“That ultimately became, let’s remove the chairs and let’s, in essence, think of the entire performance space as viable space in which music and performing and sharing music could happen,” Jones said.
Along the way, Jones and his students discussed fundamental questions facing all musicians, including what compels someone to attend a live performance, and what musicians hope people experience while they’re attending concerts.
Now, the musicians are presenting their findings on those questions in an expanded, staged performance of Susato’s dances. They’ve enlarged their performing forces beyond the OSU School of Music to include The Early Interval, for its focus on historically informed performance of music from earlier eras. They’ve also worked with movement specialist and OSU faculty member Claudia Wier on movement and staging. And the musicians will wear ruffs – pleated decorative bands – around their necks and wrists, a Renaissance-inspired costume element devised by OSU costume designer and OSU associated faculty member Rebecca Baygents Turk.
With these theatrical elements in play, a recent rehearsal in OSU’s Weigel Auditorium for the musicians’ upcoming performance looked more like the blocking of a play than a typical band practice. Jones didn’t set foot on a podium – there was no podium on stage – and he never picked up a baton. Instead, he watched the rehearsal from midway back in the audience seats, as a theater director might, periodically calling out solutions to staging issues.
In response, the musicians joined the sounds they made with the ever-changing array of visual effects they created by moving around onstage.
The musicians also are fine-tuning musical details in a way vastly different from the typical conductor-led rehearsal process. In rehearsal Jones addressed musical matters like tempo, balance and phrasing in collaboration with the musicians, more like a coach than a boss.
“My role in getting students ready to share this music is all aiding their understanding, asking a lot of questions,” Jones said. “It’s very Socratic, if you will. What do you hear? What did you notice there? What happens if you change this articulation this way? And just getting them generating ideas and ultimately listening deeper to one another, so that they can make music without somebody who has to start and stop them.”
All of this can happen because the performers aren’t dividing their attention between reading the notes on printed music and watching the conductor at the front of the room. Instead, they can focus on connecting with each other as collaborators and with their audience.
“By stepping out of the way, the impact of the music that is being made by the performers is all the more heightened, because there is just literally nothing in between the musician creating sound and the person receiving it,” Jones said. “I do believe there’s a real gift in that.”
The OSU Symphonic Band and The Early Interval perform selections from Tielman Susato’s La Danserye, along with works by Joaquin Turina, David Maslanka and James David on Wed., Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. at Weigel Auditorium in OSU’s Timashev Family Music Building. Free admission.