symphony in the sky

In any travel brochure, in any TV commercial and in any general out-of-town discussion, music in the greater Lafayette area is typically reduced to the roots-oriented Cajun and zydeco styles, but to ignore the diversity of the local music scene, which spans from metal and indie to sparse folk and, yes, orchestras, is to do a great disservice to Lafayette.

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra—now in its 34th season— had its “Symphony in the Sky” fundraiser event hosted by Social Entertainment on the top of the downtown’s Vermilion Street parking garage and under the glow of a beautiful sunset.

The weather was a balmy mid-70s punctuated by slow, drawling breezes that carried the smell of freshly-made pita and roasted brussels sprouts across the rooftop (catered by CENTRAL Pizza & Bar, who knocked the ball not just out of the park, but out of the zipcode in respects to everything except the penne).

Benefactors and supporters paid ticket prices of $100 per person (or $150 for a couples’ ticket) to attend, and the event—which sold out—was more than a good deal benefitting a good cause, but raised some troubling issues regarding the place of the traditional orchestral repertoire today.

In an attempt to one-up last year’s theme (“The Beatles: Symphony Under the Sky with Diamonds”), the orchestra performance was exclusively from the catalog of Michael Jackson. Vocals for some of the King of Pop’s hits were provided by local musicians Jared Price, Julie Williams and Ray Boudreaux.

“One of the beautiful things about this instrument, this instrument called ‘orchestra,’ is that that instrument can play pretty much all kinds of music,” said maestro Mariusz Smolij. “This instrument was born during the Baroque time, when people were wearing wigs and very stiff jackets and sometimes the orchestra played dances but the dances were rather serious and not too fast.”

Smolij noted the tremendous change since then in social culture, and remarked that while orchestras continue to play the repertoire of Baroque, Classical and Romantic arrangements, over the last ten years or so there has been an increase in the orchestral productions of music from film, rock, pop, jazz, theater and Broadway.

The Polish-born Smolij is no small matter in the world of conductors. In his 10th year with the ASO and his 19th as the music director of New Jersey’s Riverside Symphonia, he has led upwards of 100 orchestras in over 20 countries on five continents (from Carnegie Hall to Florence, Italy), and was the youngest-ever full-time conducting faculty member at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, one of the oldest and most prestigious music conservatories in the country.

Any intersection between an old, established “high” art like the symphony with an art with a generally-assumed (and, I would argue, wrong) “low-ness” like pop music is bound to receive criticism for, essentially, low-browing the very institution of the symphony, or as a personal attack against the great masters—a kick in the shin to Johann Sebastian Bach or an absolute gunshot to the face of Felix Mendelssohn.

Key to this issue is demographics: a quick search online will show numerous headlines about symphonies becoming “cool again” by performing the songs of, or alongside, the likes of Adele. “The youths,” the common lament seems to be, “don’t care about the classical canon.” And that may be true, but there is a profound difference between the works of the big-name classical composers and the likes of the Piano Guys, who I think kind of typifies the fetishization of hybrid along with the deeply absurd rabbit-hole of bluegrass cover-artists that you can fall into on Spotify. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “21 Guns” performed on mandolin are aesthetically awful, the aural equivalent of those eye-watering salt-and-pepper shaker sets that look like precocious cows or the Precious Moments figurines that occupy shelf upon shelf at every thrift store.

The internal conflict within the orchestral community is about getting people to come out to see the performances, and with education and exposure to classical works gradually decreasing, the hook and bait has become pop radio with the hope that it will serve as a sort of gateway drug to purchasing tickets to future symphonic events.

And that’s where these takes on familiar pop works comes from: both the intrigue of hearing, say, Imagine Dragons performed by a 140-member orchestra (my nightmare) but also the very act of seeing something so supremely of its moment: in 20 years, no one will be listening to string arrangements of “Lemonade,” but some people will remember hearing it, and that is a special thing. There are no strings attached. (I feel like here is a good place to mention that my dying wish is to see Carly Rae Jepsen perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.) There’s a special kind of kitsch in the existence of these types of things and entities like the Piano Guys: an almost profound type of aesthetic inconsequentiality.

ASO, blessedly, does not deal exclusively in pop staples—far from it (and I bet that Smolij would recoil from the thought). Indeed, one of the highlights of spring 2018 was “Music and Dance: From Shakespeare to Virtual Reality,” which functioned as an examination not just of the sense of progressive interpretation of canon works, but also in the way that audiences watch and receive them.

“We are proud of the fact that we area sort of adding additional little pages, if not small books, to the historical library of what orchestra can play,” Smolij said.

Lafayette is more than swamp-pop, thanks in part to gateway drugs like the ASO.

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