The Brooklyn Philharmonic Reboot

The Brooklyn Philhamonic calls its 2011 season a “reboot.” Under the leadership of Artistic Director Alan Pierson, the orchestra is going “deep into Brooklyn’s famed neighborhoods to connect with the vibrant musical traditions of the people who love it most” and collaborating with a variety of Brooklyn-based artists you might not normally find in the concert hall.

And, in fact, who needs concert halls? A performance with Mos Def as part of the Restoration Rocks Music Festival took place in the middle of Fulton Street. As Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times reported:

When an orchestra wants to play outside it usually ends up in a park, a pastoral setting for picnicking and music that is familiar and not too demanding: Bernstein’s “West Side Story” Suite, say, or Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. The audience is generally as white as the wine.

That was what made the first preview of the rejuvenated Brooklyn Philharmonic’s season — and its first performance under Alan Pierson, its new artistic director — so remarkable. …There were no Bernstein or Mozart chestnuts to be heard. In front of the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a “classical music” concert, Mr. Pierson led an ensemble of the orchestra’s members in three songs by the hip-hop artist (and Bedford-Stuyvesant native) Mos Def, who also joined in a brilliant performance of Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” written after the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Read the full article.

This new approach is generating a lot of interest in the field.

  • Greg Sandow: “I’m delighted — amazed, thrilled, just over the moon… they’re doing very little standard repertoire. Some people will of course deplore that. But let them deplore.” (Sandow blog)
  • Katherine Gressel: “Is the Philharmonic in fact departing permanently from its classical roots in favor of musical genres that are more popular, or hybrid? And will it, in turn, lose its (albeit small) base of Brooklyn classical music aficionados?” (CreateEquity blog)
  • Ian VanderMeulen: “Sometimes a clean slate has the most creative potential.” (interview with Alan Pierson in SymphonyNow)

As we gear up for our first live event, “Talking About Community,” the Brooklyn Philharmonic reboot certainly gets us thinking about what it looks like for an organization to be in and of a community. Is this a reboot or a complete re-imagining?

Here is a video from the Mos Def/Brooklyn Philharmonic performance mentioned in the Zachary Woolfe article:


  1. Matthew B. Dell says:

    What a powerful work, and what better way to “reboot” than with a new venue and repertoire. I think the Brooklyn Philharmonic will be a fascinating group to watch because it is dealing with a fundamental question about the future of orchestras: does the future lie in new repertoire for unusual ensembles in unusual places, or can orchestras as we know them today continue to attract people to the concert hall? Either way, new repertoire is naturally involved, but I wonder how many lessons from a performance such as this (with a world-famous popular musician, in an outdoor public place) will apply to other orchestras trying to regularly fill their halls for symphonic concerts. Is there a way to continue performing the core repertoire (masterpieces that represent some of humankind’s greatest achievements), while also exploring exciting, new projects like the one described above? With both a long history and a “clean slate”, the Brooklyn Philharmonic is uniquely poised to experiment with this question. I look forward to hearing the results!

  2. Erin H. says:

    I love the idea of the Brooklyn Philharmonic reaching “deep into Brooklyn’s famed neighborhoods” for ideas on how to reboot. I think that the vitality to an orchestra is in its connection with its community. Audience members want to feel a connection with the performers – this is evident by the number of celebrity magazines, websites, television shows. One way of connecting with the audience is by being aware of people’s daily lives, struggles, interests, etc. Brooklyn Philharmonic has demonstrated a desire to better connect with its audience by changing performing locations and collaborating with a popular musician. I encourage these efforts to reach out and encourage them to continue to listen to their audience members (including those who continue to want the standards). Perhaps offer opportunities for audience members to casually interact with the musicians?
    A question that comes to mind is how did the musicians felt about the collaboration with Mos Def? As an artistic director, what challenges (if any) are there in having classical musicians work outside the genres from which they received training?

  3. I also love this idea, and think it is certainly a step in the right direction! I was recently speaking to a member of a professional orchestra and he mentioned how, in order to keep orchestras relevant, we have to meet people where they are–and that means in a physical sense (location), but also in an intellectual, musical, and emotional sense. If that means starting with Mos Def or any other contemporary popular artist, so be it. Once an audience has connected to an orchestra, perhaps that is the time to begin adding the “standards” back into the repertoire, with a new sense of balance between old and new. It could potentially be the best of both worlds. Hearing Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler could really stretch a newer, younger audience. And hearing newer artists like Mos Def could potentially stretch an older “more traditional” (if I can use that phrase) orchestra audience. And isn’t that the point of great art anyway?

  4. Mark Clague says:

    Rzewski and Mos Def make for a great pairing — its fantastic to see the excitement of a next generation of musicians (Trish, Erin & Matt among them) for trailblazing performances. The challenge for this type of event is that they tend to be one-and-done, a single orchestra does a single performance and then the experiment disappears, never really building a new audience or working out the kinks that would make the experiment take on life. I hope other orchestras and other MCs will take on this work. I should also point out that this is not the first time that hip hop and the orchestra world have come together. Kanye West has used a string orchestra as a backing band on many occasions and there are hip hop-inspired orchestra works by Daniel Roumain and Gregory Walker among others. It’d be interesting if orchestral pops series included hip-hop inspired events now and then. Just putting break dancers on the stage moving to Beethoven would be amazing or having a turntablist improvise against a standard concerto accompaniment: DJ Q-tip performs the Mendelssohn concerto, anyone?

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