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Concert Choreography: When Musicians Get Up and Move

Pop acts have long invested lavishly in visuals and theatrics for live performances. The challenge to classical presenters is to find ways to widen the sensory experience of a concert without losing depth or quality of sound — a concern that takes on novel forms when cellists or clarinetists are asked to play while lying on their backs.

As a result, conservatory graduates face new pressures in a world where composers are writing choreography into their work, and chamber ensembles like Alarm Will Sound are adding stage directors to their roster.

Nigel Maister, the director who has worked with Alarm Will Sound for over a decade, said in a phone interview that most classical musicians who have mastered their craft are “quite shy” as performers. “Their focus has to be so much on what they’re playing that they’re not used to being foregrounded as physical entities,” he said. “Getting them to do the unfamiliar is a challenge in terms of their thinking first whether it will negatively impact the playing, and then just their own personal inhibitions about moving, about speaking, about using their bodies as instruments.”


Evelyn Glennie, left, and Ruth Sandvoss at the world premiere of Luna Pearl Woolf’s “Entanglement” at the Taylor Center for the Performing Arts at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

Max Foley

Mr. Maister’s early work with the ensemble focused on stagings of complex works by composers like Edgard Varèse, Gyorgy Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow. “We tried to tease out the connections and the structure within the music through playing with movement, space, design and rhythm on a visual level,” he said. “It was about making a kind of pathway for audiences into the unfamiliar.”

But constructing that pathway presented institutional and personal challenges. The business of classical performance rarely allows for the sort of long workshop and rehearsal periods that spoken theater takes for granted. And musicians had to wrestle with their own perfectionism, developed over years of conservatory training. This sometimes required compromise. For “Cliffs,” featuring acoustic arrangements of the haunting music by Aphex Twin, Mr. Maister asked all musicians except for the singer and the percussionists to lie on the ground.

“You want to play with the same level of accuracy,” said Alan Pierson, the artistic director of Alarm Will Sound. “But it’s hard to play the cello on your back. The bow doesn’t move the way you’re used to. Saliva doesn’t flow the same way.”

Mr. Pierson said players were nervous about performing in a way that meant sometimes compromising the beauty of sound. “That is always the tension with this kind of work,” he said. “The conversation is, to what extent can you afford that sacrifice?”


From left, Michael J. Maccaferri, Nathalie Joachim and Nicholas Photinos of Eighth Blackbird.

Elliot Mandel

Choreographed performance also requires memorization — another enormous challenge for musicians dealing with complex, difficult pieces. For the six-member chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird, it was the desire to play by heart — and reach a deeper connection to the music — that led to theatrical exploration.

“By freeing yourself from the music stand, you open up your senses,” said Nathalie Joachim, the ensemble’s flutist. “You are able to also look and communicate with each other. Once you take away the music, you realize you have this whole stage that we are not used to embodying.”

When Ms. Joachim auditioned for Eighth Blackbird, she performed a scene from “Columbine’s Paradise Theater,” an evening-length commedia dell’arte collaboration by Mr. DeChiazza and Ms. Kirsten made up of enigmatic encounters between instrumental soloists and the main character. “It was important for them to know that they were hiring someone who was comfortable using their body onstage,” she said.

Last month, Eighth Blackbird organized its first summer training camp for composers and chamber ensembles eager to expand the expressive dimensions of a performance. As a student at Juilliard, Ms. Joachim said, “I would have liked to have taken dance classes, but I didn’t know at the time to ask for it.” As far as the physical confidence of most classical musicians was concerned, she said: “The common joke is the worst thing to ever happen at a classical music performance is the bow. You have these people who are really good at everything, and then they have to use their bodies.”


Claire Chase at the Kitchen.

Ross Karre

But new music, which already requires a sense of adventure in its performers, is not the only place where elements of out-of-the-box staging are popping up. In Britain, the London Musical Arts Orchestra has been offering concerts of well-loved standards by composers like Mozart and Vivaldi, with players moving in ways that illustrate the give and take of the music.

The orchestra’s music director, John Landor, said the idea grew out of programs he designed for children. “I just wanted a sense of people being inside the music,” he said. “You remember things visually so much better. The amount of space in your brain that processes visual things is much bigger than what processes sound.”

During his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert often encouraged the orchestra to bring more playfulness into its playing. The first was the deliciously rowdy semistaged performance of Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” in 2010. At one point, players from the orchestra pelted Mr. Gilbert with wads of newsprint.

Mr. Gilbert said it was an ideal first request: “If there’s anything I knew the musicians would be happy to do, it was throw things at the conductor.” Over subsequent projects, the instrumentalists became bolder. During performances of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” in 2013, players stomped their feet, donned costumes and poured tea. Members of the brass section acted as if they were spectators at a peep show. String players got up and switched seats, playing entire sections by heart. “I could not have imagined it when I first started,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Now it’s become the new normal.”

In both cases, the staged elements fit well into pieces that had theatrical roots — like opera and ballet. But above all, Mr. Gilbert said, highlighting Philharmonic members as complete performers “humanizes the player.”

It’s unlikely that all musicians will reveal themselves as talented dancers or actors — or that audiences will demand choreography at every symphony concert. But the growing number of staged performances may make all musicians more aware of their physical presence. Both Alarm Will Sound and Eighth Blackbird give regular, auditory-only concerts. But their work with directors has made them more particular about how they take their seats, turn a page, or even sit still during rests.

Their members would no sooner slouch onto the stage and tune and fiddle with their valves and keys than a company of actors would amble onstage and fidget with their props or collars before the lights go down. Even the simple action of fitting a mute into a tuba — a necessarily expansive gesture — can be imbued with drama and intention. And though you might be counting rests in your head while waiting for an entrance, Ms. Joachim said, “the last thing you want to do is detract from the music by looking like you’re waiting for the bus.”

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