Gardner Museum goes pop (and rock and hip-hop)
Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a hallowed space, with pristine acoustics perfect for the type of music already programmed there. Its four steep levels of seating offer varying views of the performers, from a flush perspective of the stage to, at the very top, a bird's-eye view of it.
The museum has had a long legacy of presenting music, concentrated mostly on classical, both traditional and contemporary, and jazz. It has also branched out, through its Third Thursdays social events, with occasional soul, bluegrass, and Latin music performances.
This fall, however, the Gardner is determined to rattle expectations about not only its music offerings but also its audience. Starting Thursday, the museum will launch RISE, a concert series devoted to up-and-coming artists from the realms of pop, rock, and hip-hop, curated by the visionary musicians Shea Rose and Simone
Why now? Well, why not? says Scott Nickrenz, the Gardner's music director.
"Anne Hawley, our director, said we want something new to shake this place up. We want to get a new and younger crowd in here," Nickrenz says, adding that he hopes to attract the highly coveted 25-to-45 demographic. He knows that's a tall order given the Gardner's reputation.
"We've been trying for years to change the elitist image of the Gardner," Nickrenz says. "It's important that we get people in and show them that this is not a snooty place. We're trying to make this place comfortable to all types of people. It's very hard to break that image when you're dealing with 100 years of certain attitudes. This [new series] should do it, if anything will."
KING, a futuristic soul trio from Los Angeles anchored by twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother along with Anita Bias, kicks off the series on Thursday, with pianist-composer Dave Mackay opening. Malaysian pop singer and songwriter Yuna will join forces with the pan-global ensemble Women of the World on Oct. 22. And Berklee-bred singer-songwriter Liz Longley, who's now making inroads in Nashville, will perform on Nov. 19 with an opening set from hip-hop spoken-word artist Matthew Rosewood.
"We were looking for the cutting edge of what's going on in music today while still having some Boston roots," Rose says. "We wanted that mix of who's come up through Boston and also who has also gone on to a national stage."
Nickrenz handed the curatorial reins to Rose and Scazzocchio, both Berklee-educated musicians, after their triumphant performance together at the Gardner last year. Rose, in particular, has been a refreshing addition to the local music scene with her organic fusion of soul, funk, R&B, and pop, all informed by a punk sensibility.
"After seeing us really tailor my music, which is very energetic, they really trusted us to find acts that maybe have bigger sounds but that we could figure out how to fit in the hall," Rose says. "That was one of the criteria we put in place when Simone and I were scouting bands for the first season."
Nickrenz says the museum will judge the series' success first and foremost by the attendance and the diversity of the audience. Rose and Scazzocchio say they're already planning two more performances for the spring, with an eye to renew the series for another year. They also plan to produce two or three videos from each concert.
RISE puts the Gardner in line with other local museums with strong pop music programming, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art. "We're smaller, but we understand what they're doing and we feel very uncompetitive," Nickrenz says.
It also presents new production challenges for the Gardner. Concert manager Alicia Mielke says that, in general, a string quartet is easier to work with logistically than a band coming in with keyboards, microphones, amps, and extra equipment. "But that's also been really fun for us to figure out from a production standpoint," Mielke says.
The venue, too, is its own conversation. A performer or band might not be used to the hall's resonant acoustics in the cube-like space, which might require sonic adjustments.
"In the beginning, the museum was very concerned about the acoustics of the space," Scazzocchio says. "It is a classical hall, after all. Our first proposal was to bring in a full band plus a 25-piece string ensemble, but they were like, 'No, no, no, that's too big!' "
"We had to scale it down, but we made sure we worked with them during the sound checks in order to maximize the room instead of playing against it," Scazzocchio says. "But that's the fun of doing something different that challenges the way something has been done before."
RISE MUSIC SERIES
Featuring KING and Dave Mackay at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Thursday, 7 p.m. Additional artists and performances on Oct. 22 and Nov. 19.
Tickets: $12-$27. 617-278-5156,