Debussy Riot: The orchestra goes clubbing, with goofy results

City Paper

A couple of Fridays ago, the National Symphony Orchestra had a show at Echostage. That’s right, Echostage, a nightclub that’s better known for hosting the likes of T.I. or Armin Van Buuren (who’s performing there this Saturday, if you’re interested) than a full orchestra. It was part of the orchestra’s NSO In Your Neighborhood: Brookland to NoMa program, in which the orchestra leaves its home base of the Kennedy Center to bring free concerts and educational programs to audiences it might not normally reach.

For this particular concert at Echostage, the NSO performed a selection of movements from different pieces, and collaborated with three guest artists: DJ Stylus; Wytold Lebing, an electric cello player; and Christylez Bacon, a beat-boxer, guitarist, and performer of what he calls “progressive hip-hop.” Yes, Christylez with a Z. I had to go to this show. I persuaded a few friends to come with me and we trekked down to D.C.

We got to the venue a little late, because Echostage is in a weirdly residential area where parking is impossible, so we came in during the NSO’s second piece of the evening, the Allegro movement from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. It’s a dark, quick, commanding movement, and despite the distracting visuals playing on the backdrop behind the orchestra and some off-kilter sound mixing (Echostage’s staff, understandably, doesn’t seem used to managing sound for a full orchestra), the NSO gave a great performance. The audience seemed to love it—everyone cheered raucously at the end. 

Then the guest artists came out to join the orchestra. Anne Midgette, the chief classical music critic at the Washington Post, very politely tried to sidestep reviewing the five pieces that included the guests, but I have to be blunt: It was goofy as hell. Christylez Bacon is a charismatic performer, but his self-described progressive hip-hop involves him rapping about the X-2 bus and mambo sauce, a condiment that’s found at takeout restaurants around D.C.

Like I said, pretty goofy, but the NSO was clearly trying to cater (/pander) to a younger audience, and it at least succeeded at bringing in a younger crowd: The attendees were decades younger than most typical orchestra-goers, with many seeming to be between 18 and 35. Some people brought small children. And while Echostage certainly wasn’t at capacity, it still felt pretty full—no small feat, given that it’s a 30,000-square-foot venue.

I do have to wonder, though, how much of that crowd would’ve shown up without the crossover performers. Maybe this was just me projecting my own preferences, but it seemed like the cheering was louder for the songs that were solely the NSO playing classical tunes.

Perhaps the younger audience and the popularity of the event had more to do with the price (free!) and the fact that the orchestra had left the symphony hall. Mother Jones floated that hypothesis in a November 2014 article with the dramatic title “Can Concerts in Bars and Cafés Save Classical Music?” It profiles Classical Revolution, an organization with chapters in 30 cities around the world that play chamber music in nontraditional settings. There’s a Baltimore chapter of the organization, which is starting a monthly residency at Joe Squared in Station North called “Drunk Bach.” Its first show is this Saturday, Jan. 24, at 8 p.m., with a performance from Mobtown Stringband afterward; the shows will continue on the fourth Saturday of every month. And if you want to check out the opera in a setting that’s significantly more casual than the Lyric Opera House, Peabody Conservatory’s Early Music Department is presenting two “short but decadent” operas, “La descente d’Orphee aux enfers” and “Le mariage force,” at the Theatre Project on Tuesday, Jan. 27, and Wednesday, Jan. 28. Tickets are $20, but students who show their ID at the door get in for free.

That being said, for me, it’s hard to beat the experience of hearing the force of a full orchestra with the acoustics of a symphony hall. I’m particularly eager to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society Women’s Chorus, the Peabody’s Children’s Chorus, and soloist Jamie Barton. They’ll be performing at the Meyerhoff on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30, and with Marin Alsop conducting, I’m certain that it’ll be a tour de force. Tickets start at $29. It’ll be well worth the cost.

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