Redefining Classical Music

By Kelly Ferjutz

Jonathan Sheffer, Artistic Director and Conductor of red {an orchestra} is really a hurricane in disguise, bringing virtual blasts of fresh air into the classical music world, converting skeptics and turning heads as he and his orchestra(s) perform old and new works. The freshness is in the presentation, which frequently combines varied visual elements along with the musical. Puppets, film/video and semi-staged vocal works are but a few of the tricks up this maestro's sleeve. Of paramount importance, however, are the musical values themselves; excellent intonation, articulation and beauty of sound (unless the music calls for non-beautiful) are the order of the day.

Reviewers like to find new words to describe what they hear, but the favorite words to describe an event by red {an orchestra} are "innovative," "daring," or "brilliant." Suitable, especially, considering the mission of red is to redefine, redesign and rediscover classical music as we know it.

How did this happen? Where did red, or even Sheffer come from? Cleveland had, for quite a few years, the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, which doubled as the pit band for the opera and ballet, as well as a presenter of its own subscription series. The OCO never quite found itself, or a regular home, either — a situation also pertinent to red. A few years ago, the board dismantled the OCO, while leaving the pit entities intact, but under other names.

This action resulted in hurt feelings and unhappy musicians, many of whom depended on the orchestra for musical and economic satisfaction — and existence. After many hours of meetings involving musicians, arts mavens and community leaders, the decision was made to form a new orchestra, and Jonathan Sheffer, founder and conductor of the Eos Orchestra in New York City was engaged as artistic director and conductor in 2002. Cleveland's musical life hasn't been the same since.

Eos — named for the Greek Goddess of the Dawn — has accomplished unprecedented triumphs in its short existence, in addition to recordings, TV programs and tours, non-traditional concerts in non-traditional venues have become the "new" tradition. How did this happen? Two words: Jonathan Sheffer.

Sheffer (who recently turned 50) is a native New Yorker and graduate of Harvard who studied with Leonard Bernstein, among others. His fascination with music — aural and visual — led him to consider becoming a film composer in Hollywood. It eventually took him to the podium in front of a large orchestra, conducting film scores. At this point (fortunately for us) he discovered that conducting was more fun. Fortunately for him, a planned Disney production faltered, leaving him in possession of a large payment for the score he'd composed, and he returned to the East Coast to start up an orchestra. In one gigantic leap of faith Eos was born.

Sheffer's philosophy is the same with both orchestras. "I had the feeling that people needed an added element - music plus beauty on the stage. We're literally reinventing the audience, by preserving what's great, yet making it approachable to appeal to all people.

"The classical music world lags behind other art forms in reaching its audience. We appeal to them by staying true to the art, yet raising the performance level to reach them."

But it isn't just art for art's sake. "The visuals must match the aural for true understanding," he says. And they come in many guises: puppets perform a puppet show (the audience watches the puppets who are watching a puppet show); film music accompanies clips of the film for which it was originally composed; or commissioned videos by ranking video artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood accompanying a Schubert symphony. Film composers might be Aaron Copland or Philip Glass, or even Jonathan Sheffer; he still keeps his composing side operational. The video art might be representational or abstract, but not necessarily narrative. The music is always in the foreground, the visuals in the back, in a reversal of the soundtrack concept.

Of course, the concept of "visual color" blending with "musical color" is not new. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) developed a complicated system involving the use of colored lights to be activated in various passages of several of his compositions. He was a synesthetic — a condition in which one "hears" colors as well as musical notes. (Among other synesthetic composers of famously exotic music were Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, and Messaien.)

The color red did not originally feature in the naming of Cleveland's newest orchestra. Rather it came out of focus groups determining the position and thrust of the new group. The name "red" emerged as a bright and sassy synchronous indicator of the intent. In no time at all, however, it also caught on as a fashion element for orchestra and audience alike.

As both orchestras are of chamber size, another happy circumstance has manifested itself regarding repertoire — reduced or mini versions of orchestral standards. It is an awesome experience to hear Ravel's Bolero as played by 35 musicians, rather than the 105 of most major orchestras. Clevelanders were presented with this treat in red's inaugural concert in October, 2002.Yet to come, here, is the "pocket Ring" (the mighty Ring of the Nibelungs by Richard Wagner). Eos performed the condensed "Das Rheingold" two years ago, with "Die Waikure" due next spring.

Even these small-scale versions, however, cost a bundle to produce. Rehearsal time for opera of
any kind is necessarily extensive, and in addition, there are costuming and staging, and even sets to be considered. Plus, of course, the musicians. It's not impossible, says Sheffer, "just expensive." However, having two orchestras of the same basic type and size, even in different locations, does allow for some sharing. Cleveland will premiere new productions, which will then go on to New York.

This was the case with the recent red Christmas concerts — a Baroque oratorio "The Christmas Story" by Heinrich Schutz and two pieces by Resphigi. Tenor Peter Kazaras did double duty as Evangelist and stage director, although soloists and chorus were from the home location. The spring program "Lenny and Steve Rediscovered" (music by Bernstein and Sondheim) will come to life here first.

While Kazaras and Sheffer go back a ways together, they share the same forward-looking approach, searching out new ways for music and visuals to overlap. They laughingly refer to this as being "futurists." But, adds Kazaras, "we're not making apologies. Quite simply, we think that visual stimulation can add to the concert experience."

One is frequently hard-pressed to know where to look first during a performance by red. For one thing, no two performances have been in the same space. (Note: they're looking for a home; preferably to seat about a thousand folks at a time, centrally located, and not too expensive.) It's fun to go to a new or different place to experience new and different musical happenings.

Still to come to Cleveland are the "l0-minute opera" evenings. This concept was so successful in NYC that a second batch of these mini versions was unveiled the following year by Eos. Six of them were done in each evening, adding to the anticipation.

A skillful writer, Sheffer loves words and uses them well, especially in his pre-concert talks. In another spurt of explanation, the words "connections, concept, continuity, context" all tumble out. They all apply equally well to what he and red are doing.

red {an orchestra} holds its annual benefit Saturday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Public Hall. Its spring concert "Lenny and Steve Rediscovered" takes place Tuesday, April 13, Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea; and Wednesday, April 14, Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium, Cleveland. For concert tickets or more information about red, call 440-519-1733 or visit