Baroque and brews: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra shakes up expectations with new casual concert series

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On a Thursday night in the Arts District, a small army of classical musicians set up their stands and instruments alongside beer kegs and old couches. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra hosted its first casual concert and musician “hangout” at Angel City Brewery last month. 

SESSION is the first in a series of classical music concerts set in a relaxed atmosphere. It’s one of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s many programs focused on bringing classical music to new audiences.

Studies confirm that classical music audiences tend to be older, wealthier and less diverse than the general population. A report by The Audience Agency found that almost three-quarters of audience members are over the age of 50.

“Classical music organizations have been trying to get young people into concert halls for the last 50 years,” said Ben Kutner, 26, an L.A-based composer. “So much of it is about the presentation, it’s not that they don’t like the music. Young people love this music. Good music is just good music. It’s more fun to go to a brewery and listen to it with your friends,” Kutner said. He anticipated programs such as SESSION would help draw new people to classical music.

This will be the first of many new programs by LACO in the coming year, according to Lacey Huszcza, LACO’s associate executive director. Future concerts will include location-specific works in unexpected locations. These more experimental works will complement concerts performed in a more traditional setting. 

“Because of its size, a chamber orchestra is very versatile and flexible. We can bring music to more people in more places. What we do for the community is very important,” said Jaime Martín in an interview earlier this month. Martín will replace Jeffrey Kahane as musical director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in the 2019-2020 season. 

As the sold-out show began, actors from theatre company, 4Larks, greeted guests at the door with fairy lights redeemable for craft beers at the bar. 4Larks members acted as musical guides, ushering the audience to sit on cushions on the floor, couches and benches for the musical performances. Musicians were grouped in twos and threes around the space, giving the audience a surround-sound experience.

“One of the things LACO has always been committed to is ‘making great music personal.’ We try to be a little friendlier than other orchestras but still maintain a high level of artistic excellence,” Huszcza said.

According to a study by the Knight Foundation, only 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans have a “close or moderately close” relationship with classical music. The study also found classical music listeners have a median age of 45, are 86 percent white and about half report a household income over $75,000. For a genre that only reaches a small segment of the population, connecting with new listeners is an ambitious goal.

SESSION’s eclectic program focused on living, American composers. Norman described the program as “both forward and backward looking” because the new music referenced pieces in the classical canon. He added that the concert was produced to capitalize on unique spaces in the brewery and give the audience more than just a standard concert experience.

The highlight of the evening was Norman’s string trio, The Companion Guide to Rome. Each movement of the work is a character study of a Roman church, the music is informed by the proportions of the buildings, the qualities of the surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on the walls and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. 4Larks actors performed theatrical projections during the piece, adding to the multimedia experience.

“SESSION is an artist-drive product that challenges audience expectations of what a concert should be. It breaks down the barrier between musicians and audience,” Huszcza said. “In L.A. audiences are looking for a 360 experience – it’s not just young people. People that are interested in the arts want a less passive experience than sitting in the concert hall.”

During the intermission, musicians mingled with the crowd, a first for many classical concert-goers. This casual environment gave audience members the chance to interact with musicians, chat with each other about the program and sample more Angel City brews.

While LACO’s innovative SESSION and other creative programs consistently draw a crowd, it may be that they’re preaching to the choir. Although the SESSION crowd was younger than most standard concert hall audiences, many attendees were familiar with classical music and had been to LACO concerts previously.

“There’s a lot of room for young composers and musicians to share their work in L.A,” Kutner said. “You don’t have to go to an opera house to hear and appreciate this music.”

  • Audience members sit on the floor, benches and couches in they causal concert environment.
  • LACO musicians set up in different spaces throughout the brewery for each piece on the concert program.
  • 4Larks actors act as musical guides during the concert.
  • Ben Kutner, 26, composer waits for a craft beer at the bar.
  • Rob Brophy, LACO violist, watches the audience gather before the performance begins.
  • Paula Rebelo and Kalean Ung, both actors with 4Larks, greet guests at the door with fairy lights.

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