Camerata director aims for relevancy with jolt of excitement

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Nestled among the works by Renaissance composers, Brahms and some accomplished living composers in the Pittsburgh Camerata's latest program is one unfamiliar name: Jon Foreman.

Well, unfamiliar is relative. Foreman is the frontman for the popular indie band Switchfoot -- not the kind of fare that artistic director Rebecca Rollett is used to having her chamber choir sing.

But that's all changing, because of some personal revelations that Rollett has had about the field of classical music and how it is presented.

"I want to see us be relevant," she says of the 24-member choir. "It seems like classical music is irrelevant to most of the population, and I think that is wrong. I don't think that is the fault of the audience or classical composers, but what we are giving them.

"I have tended in the past to focus on the early end of our spectrum -- Renaissance, baroque up to early 20th century. But I have suddenly become interested in the late part of the spectrum, finding interesting music in the late 20th and 21st centuries."

The upcoming concerts, called "Nocturnes -- Songs of Love and the Night," include works by contemporary composers such as Morten Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre and Carnegie Mellon University composer Nancy Galbraith.

But a work by a rock band?

"A good song is a good song," Rollett says emphatically. "It doesn't matter if it was written in 1600, 1800 or 2009. The problem is making people realize that what they are going to hear are good songs."

This pop music stuff is somewhat new to Rollett, who didn't listen to it as a teenager or in college. "I was too busy going to orchestra and chorus rehearsals," she says. "In my freshman dorm, some girl who was totally addicted to Carole King and James Taylor made all of our lives a misery by playing 'Fire and Rain' over and over. I can still smell my dorm when I hear that song." But now her iPhone contains Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, Switchfoot, Mute Math and a host of other rock and contemporary groups.

One of the bands who made Rollett a convert is the California band Switchfoot. She has been to three of its concerts, the first in 2007.

"I was actually very nervous," she recalls with a laugh. "A [young] singer in the Camerata was living with us, and I said, 'If I paid for your ticket, will you go with me?'?" Since then she has arranged Foreman's song "The Moon Is a Magnet," which Foreman wrote for himself playing acoustic guitar.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done, because it is so different from anything else, and I wasn't sure how to treat it," says Rollett.

Rollett hopes that, eventually, the time she has spent watching pop and rock shows will help her to transform Camerata concerts beyond its usual repertory.


Pittsburgh Camerata "Nocturnes -- Songs of Love and the Night"
  • Where and When: When and where: 8 p.m. Friday at Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church; 8 p.m. Saturday at Sixth Presbyterian Church, Squirrel Hill; and 8 p.m. March 7 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Highland Park.
  • Tickets: $10-$20; call 412-421-5884.

"I feel there is such a separation between the audience and the performers," she says. "They are up there in fancy clothes, and you are required to sit there and admire them and be quiet. But that is not the experience that young people have. They are up in the mosh pit or singing along. I am trying to make this a more visceral experience. I haven't yet figured out how to make it more participatory like a rock concert, but I am trying to think of something small to capture that."

Rollett does have something special planned for the upcoming concerts, but she is not telling. "We are not talking really avant-garde -- that is not me," she says. "I am adding an element that extends the experience from beyond what people are expecting."

She will reveal that the concert will include intriguing "re-interpretations" of some of the song texts by CAPA students, organized by teacher Kristin Kovacic. The idea is to make the older works such as "O Bello O Bianco" by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) more accessible to audiences by translating them into today's vernacular. "Some students wrote poems, but a few wrote raps," says Rollett.

The upshot is that the Camerata is a work in progress, and Rollett feels now more than ever that groups must find a way to engage new audiences without upsetting their core.

"It is not comfortable, but I think it will be good for audiences and groups. You either come up with something exciting or you don't."


Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com .


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