Beethoven Rebuilt in Bed-Stuy
If the mantra for orchestras in these cash-strapped times is "outreach," then music director Alan Pierson and his Brooklyn Philharmonic must be getting pretty close to enlightenment, or at least to the heart of their home borough.
Back in November, Pierson and the orchestra transplanted to Brighton Beach, the echt-Russian enclave, to play Soviet-era cartoon music by the likes of Shostakovich and Schnittke, and even served dumplings at intermission. This past weekend found the ensemble in downtown Brooklyn performing concerts that mixed choreography, projected images and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with a chance for the audience to belt out a little shape-note singing. The music ranged from Copland to Sufjan Stevens.
June 9 brings a visit to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where Beethoven has been burrowing through the minds of DJs and sound artists. The Philharmonic's "Beethoven Remix Project" invited Brooklyn-based artists to take the finale of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") and run with it. Earlier this month, five finalists were announced (and can be heard below). Pierson says they're all winners, yet just one will be performed — in an arrangement by composer Andrew Norman — at the Philharmonic's June concert, which will also include performances by Bedford-Stuyvesant native Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and Leslie Uggams.
The finalists come from a variety of backgrounds, Pierson explains. There are established artists like composer and guitarist Dan Friel and DJ Eddie Marz, who first met and fell in love with Beethoven's music on this project. And then there's the Swaggbrarians, a group of students from the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, who take a playful approach to the music.
"All of the finalists are very different, creative and original in their own way," Pierson says. "The Swaggbrarians were clever in their use of voices, they actually sang some of Beethoven's notes for their remix."
Pierson has already earned praise for what's being called his radical revitalization of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the 155-year-old orchestra he took over only last year. New York Times reporter Zachary Woolfe, reviewing the orchestra's season preview concert last fall (see the video above), wrote, "As it starts its fascinating reboot season, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has the potential to be not just a good orchestra but also an important one."
Customizing his programming for each neighborhood, Pierson says he hopes the orchestra makes a deep impression wherever it goes.
"Although I'm hoping for as broad an audience as possible, this show is aimed at the community where we are performing," Pierson says. "It's really a show for Bed-Stuy, an intentionally multi-generational show about its natives from Lena Horne and Yasiin Bey, to artists just coming up."
But Pierson's not just trying to play up the younger hip-hop crowd. "The priority is to make really great orchestral music for a audience with many interests. "
Alan Pierson comments on the five "Beethoven Remix" finalists. Which is your favorite?
Swaggbrarians: "These students are just great in their use of voices, singing some of Beethoven's notes. No one else tapped into that."
Dan Friel: "Dan Friel comes less out of the hip-hop world and more from the electronic music world. He embraced the MIDI sound and went with a lot of filtering to bring out the noise of that sound."
Boima Tucker: "I loved Boima Tucker's sense of space, with layers of things, some close and some far away. It's really sophisticated and beautiful."
DJ Eddie Marz: I love his obsessive fixation on just two of Beethoven's ideas, creating layers of tonalities at differing speeds."
Andrew McLean: "Andrew McLean's remix is lyrical and beautiful. Instead of focusing on the more rhythmic parts of Beethoven, he chooses the "poco andante" section, which gives a sense of relief, as if the clouds suddenly opened up."
This isn't the first time Beethoven — or another composer, for that matter — has been subjected to a complete overhaul. Click here to listen to a few more.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.