The movement to pry open the experience of classical music from its stuffy confines has left one establishment largely untouched: the orchestra. And no surprise, since among the institutions of classical music it is perhaps the largest, most expensive, and most tradition-bound.
Enter Phoenix, a new Boston-based chamber orchestra aimed at revolutionizing the encounter with orchestral music. "The number one thing standing between new audiences and loving classical music is the context it's usually presented in," says its website.
"Flight," Phoenix's second concert, took place Friday at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, a repurposed church in the South End. There was an almost defiantly relaxed vibe before it started. Orchestra members, young and casually dressed, milled around and chatted with concertgoers. At some point, a group of musicians walked causally to their stands — on the floor of the venue, not the stage — tuned up, and began a bracing performance of Heinrich Biber's "Battalia à 10.''
All the hip atmospherics, no matter how well-intentioned, would be mere window dressing if Phoenix weren't able to back them up with high-level musicianship. Happily it did, especially in the works that did what the orchestra itself is trying to do: bring together the perspectives of past and present. The Biber begins as polite Baroque fare but soon erupts into proto-Ivesian cacophony and odd bits of noise, all of which the players dug into eagerly.
Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite, an ingenious appropriation of Baroque aesthetics, was brilliantly played, the orchestra marshaling a crisp, acidic sound and conductor Matthew Szymanski leading a performance full of rhythmic swing. Less successful was Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, in which the music seemed to have been flattened into the same narrow spectrum of dynamics and tempo. Judd Greenstein's swirling, kaleidoscopic "Clearing, Dawn, Dance," straddling the line between orchestral and chamber music, made for a lovely prelude for the Stravinsky.
A few familiar concert hall rituals remained — the orchestra standing at the end, individual soloists being recognized. But for the most part the setting and mood accomplished the unlikely task of puncturing the quasi-sacred aura that surrounds orchestra concerts, and making the encounter seem like simply a venture to hear some music.
People tweeted — the concert had its own hashtag, #PhoenixFlight — and clapped enthusiastically between movements. They went to the bar and came back while the music was going. Orchestra musicians served as good-naturedly awkward emcees. When your neighbor talked during the performance, it didn't seem like the intrusion it would've been at Symphony Hall.
Is that enough to create a revolution? Perhaps the best way to think of Phoenix is as a negotiation between past and present that tries to preserve the virtues of each. Regardless, what this group is doing is eminently worthy of your attention.
At: Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, Friday