Origins Part 1: Before We Get Started

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about the origins of Phoenix. I'm hoping these posts will provide you with some insight into why we're doing this, how it happened, and what's the come in the future. These posts will come every other week or so and in between you'll find posts from other members of Phoenix about a gamut of other topics.

Forgive me in advance if any of this post is completely nonsensical: I'm writing most of this from 30,000 feet above the middle of Missouri after a long day of delays and layovers that will inevitably end in lost baggage and an expensive cab fare.

That sounds like an outburst of frustration, but it’s not. It’s just a list of things that have happened. I love flying. I love that it gives me moments like this one, when I can reflect on the last nine months and wonder how life led me to where I am now.

Ancient History

There’s a page in my conducting notebook titled, “New Orchestra,” from April 2nd. When I was first thinking about this blog post I thought that would be the best place to start but now I realize that in order to explain some things we’ll have to go back a bit further. Indulge me, for just a millisecond, as we go back to when I fell in love with classical music for the first time.

I come from a completely non-musical family. When I was growing up my dad only occasionally listened to classical music and my mom, bless her heart, was (and is) completely tone deaf. Neither really played an instrument. I was forced to take piano lessons as a child and hated it. Just hated it. I was one of those awful children that would literally rather cry on a piano bench than actually practice.

I played Euphonium in elementary school band and liked that more but the first key event in my musical life didn’t happen until middle school. In November of 2001 Warner Brothers released the first Harry Potter movie. I loved Harry Potter. I mean, I know there are people who think they love Harry Potter, but I really did. I took a Harry Potter book to school almost literally every single day. It bordered on being a serious problem. Alright it... it probably was a serious problem.

That Harry Potter movie had a lot of things I loved but one stood out above all: A peerless score written by John Williams. Here was a kid who had never listened to more than a minute of classical music before suddenly falling in love with the sound of the symphony orchestra. It was the context that did it. You probably couldn’t have dragged me to a National Symphony concert, but the sound of trumpets heralding the beginning of a Quidditch match? Instant addiction.

The speed at which things go from being meer curiosities to unbridled passions for me is somewhat legendary amongst my friends. In 2008 in the five months after I went to my first Boston University Hockey game I didn’t miss a home game and traveled to six different states to go to away games. Six seasons later I'm a season ticket holder and it all more or less happened over night.

John Williams opened a new world to me and I had to have it all. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, what a library to discover. My hunger was insatiable and my father, perhaps sensing a chance to broaden my horizons, kept a CD of Beethoven 5 and 7 (Kleiber and Vienna… Perhaps the finest disc of classical music ever recorded, though I had no idea at that point) in the car. I became addicted to the second movement of Beethoven 5. Nope, not the first, not the fourth. To be honest I didn’t even know it was from Beethoven 5, I just liked the horn part.

I started studying Euphonium more and more and applied to spend a summer at the high school program at Tanglewood. That summer the Boston Symphony introduced me to piece after piece of the classical repertoire that I loved and from then on I’ve spent my life in classical music and never looked back.

meanwhile, in 2014...

Alright, sorry, maybe that was more than a millisecond. The point is this: My path to loving classical music was unusual and unlikely. It took a set of circumstances that would be hard to replicate even if you specifically tried to. I couldn’t imagine my life without that path, but there need to be more paths. There should be hundreds of ways for classical music to be easy to fall in love with.

So in late March when close friends Joshua Weilerstein, Aram Demirjian, and I started talking about what an orchestra built from the ground up to appeal to broader audiences would look like, it was the catalyst for a long burning fire. After all, I was that audience. We talked for hours about new ways to energize orchestral performances. We talked about interior structure and exterior structure. How performances could change to create an accessible experience for the audience and how an orchestra could be run differently from the inside to give the musicians more power over their product than ever.

It wasn’t a new conversation. Most musicians in our generation have these topics on their minds. How do we stay relevant in an ever-changing world? A world where almost every industry around us has adapted in one way or another while we’ve remained stagnant. In a world where everybody wants what’s new how to we make what’s old interesting again?

These conversations are often had, but rarely acted upon. In decades, when someone asks, remind me I’ll always have Josh and Aram to thank for pushing me out the door and convincing me to turn thought into reality. A couple of days after our conversation, on April 2nd apparently, I started writing things down.

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I had no idea where to start so, on Josh’s suggestion, I just started writing. I wrote a page of unorganized thought before switching to a digital medium. The earliest document in the Phoenix folder on my computer is called, “The Ensemble,” and it’s 26 pages of unadulterated blabbering on how a new orchestra would function. It’s not organized, it’s not well written, and I’ve definitely never proofread it, but it was a starting point.

The next step, I knew, was to find out how viable it was to start a new orchestra in a city already bustling with alternatives. I needed to start scheduling meetings with people that I knew and respected and ask their advice about how, or even whether, to proceed. But I also knew that in order to do that I had to at least start getting my thoughts in coherent form.

First Steps

I knew what the questions would be: Why? What? How? Who?

The why came easily enough. We have an audience problem in the orchestral world. Depending on who you ask audiences shrinking and aging, but more importantly than anything new orchestral audience members almost never come back for a second concert. It’s not that there’s a problem with the normal concert format for our regular listeners, it’s that our concerts are hard to grasp and appreciate the first time you experience one.

There’s a niche in the orchestral ecosystem that’s almost completely unfilled. Flagship professional orchestras provide a peerless experience for classical music connoisseurs, budding youth programs expose children to the magic of music at a young age, but for anyone in between there are very few options on the menu that aren’t intimidating. In order to continue attracting new audiences to orchestral music someone needs to be presenting concerts in a format that’s great for introducing people to an art form they’re not familiar with.

So that was the why.

But I knew that the how was going to be both the most important and hardest question to answer. How do you make a genre of music that often prides itself on the effort required to enjoy it accessible for someone that doesn’t know anything about it? This wasn’t the first time someone had sat down and tried to crack the equation.

I had plenty of notes on changes I thought would be a means to the end of a more accessible orchestra concert. I started organizing them into something I thought could constitute a ‘pitch’ but it was a struggle to express what I wanted to do. It didn’t help that I was still lovingly referring to the new orchestra as, “The Ensemble.”

I knew I needed a name. And I knew I needed to start putting together a team. I set up a series of coffee and lunch dates with mentors whose advice I valued and close friends I knew I wanted to work with. Those meetings were just the first in a series of events that helped define what Phoenix has become today and where we’re going in the future. Even more importantly, they turned the “I”s and “Me”s into “We”s and “Us”s.