Origins Part 2: Avengers Assemble!

Greetings from snowy, snowy Boston, reader. It's actually so snowy here that at least once in the following post when I'm not sure what image I should use, I'm just going to use a picture of my snowy, snowy house. But what better time to write a blog post?

In the first post of the Origins series I wrote about how and why I made the foolhardy decision to start an orchestra. In this second post I'm going to talk about how I started putting together the team that would become the core of what Phoenix is today. Read on. Hopefully from the comfort of a well heated home. 

So I have this idea...

If April was a month of brainstorming, May was a month of bouncing that storm off of the brains of friends and mentors. I had a foggy idea of what I wanted to do but I knew I needed a lot of feedback, input, and a peerless team to get it done. I fit every meeting I could around a busy schedule of opera rehearsals, benefit concerts, and post-graduate retail life. Lunch, coffee, drinks, whatever and whenever people had time to meet.

I’ve tried as much as possible to use my calendar to keep my memories straight but unfortunately in May 2014 my life hadn’t quite reached the organizational plane it has to operate on now. While some dates and times from that period are in my calendar other meetings are just vague memories of people, places, and ideas.

Congratulations to the fine Boston establishments that are about to get a free sliver of advertising, I love you all.

robyn

The first meeting actually marked in my calendar was a coffee date with violinist Robyn Bollinger at Render Coffee on Columbus. Are you meeting someone for coffee in Boston anytime in the next century? You should probably meet them at Render. The sandwiches are great, the coffee is even better, and you’re bound to run into someone I know. That last thing may not actually improve your experience, but it’s pretty essential to mine.

I met with Robyn because on top of being a close friend and out of this world violinist, she was the mind behind Project Paganini, an event that seamlessly wove performances of all 24 of Paganini’s Caprices for Violin with background about their history and the mind of their composer. Paganini’s Caprices are standouts in the repertoire because of their extraordinary technical range and flashiness, but I dare say few people would choose to listen to all 24 in a row unless they were presented in a very special way.

Robyn had accomplished that with Project Paganini. It was the sort of visceral experience I was interested in creating in an orchestral setting, though I knew the translation wouldn’t be exact. She’d done a great job of captivating the audience and shifting their attention by performing from different parts of the hall and alternating between playing and speaking. These ideas would play a critical role in the new concert model we were developing and, as good friends do, Robyn was able to pass along lessons learned from putting together the Paganini event.

Maya

I met with violist Maya Jacobs at Render as well. Maya is a close friend and was a violist with Discovery Ensemble, a phenomenal Boston orchestra that shut its doors last summer after a seven year run. She was able to share her experiences performing with a close-knit group of friends and help imagine how this new orchestra would function from a structural standpoint. Building something from the ground up would allow us to organize the group the way we wanted, giving musicians power over their art and ensuring everybody was invested in the mission of the orchestra.

Kate

I remember meeting with Kate Lemmon at Trident Booksellers and Café. I remember the weather was nice and we sat outside. I remember someone walking down the street recognized Kate and ran over to talk to her, which happens most og the time when you’re out and about with Kate.

Kate’s an outstanding flutist but perhaps even more impressively she runs her own photography business in Boston (You can see her work on the Phoenix website, or on my website, or on the website of almost every musician in Boston, or you know, on her website). She brought incredible insight into business management and the type of workaholic attitude you need to have around when you’re starting something from scratch.

I knew Kate had great ideas about directions to push the orchestral model. We talked about orchestral concerts doing a better job of embracing their social nature. This meant including drink and, when possible, food as a standard part of the concert atmosphere. Kate brought up a model that featured a pre-concert cocktail hour followed by a shorter set of orchestral music. That model evolved as more voices and ideas entered the fray and it had a strong influence on the Ignite event.

Jeff

At least one important early conversation didn’t take place over coffee. My friend Jeff Dyrda, a violinist with the New World Symphony, was staying at my apartment for a couple nights in May on his way home to Canada. One of those nights, while we were being beaten senseless by the surprising difficulty of Super Mario 3D World, we talked about an idea he had for a sort of Lollapalooza-esque classical concert experience.

Jeff had this great concept for an event with different ensembles playing in separate rooms that audience members could move freely in and out of. It would allow audience members a level of control over what they listened to that’s very difficult to achieve in a traditional setting. The center room would have food and drinks that people could take with them from stop to stop along the way.

We’ve yet to find a venue or event where the full Lallapolooza experience Jeff imagined would fit but the elements of being able to walk around and experience music differently and freely during a performance is something you’ll see on March 24th.

I love the idea of the audience being able to curate their own experience and it’s something I’m still pursuing. I’m still trying to figure out how to implement those ideas in an orchestral setting. It’s a stark reminder that this journey is just beginning and we still have a lot of questions to ponder.

The Mentors

Woven between these meetings with friends were a series of meetings with trusted mentors from my time at NEC.

If memory serves correctly, the literal first meeting I had with anybody about Phoenix was with Margie Apfelbaum, the Administrative Director of Orchestras and NEC. We met for lunch at Pho and I, a great Thai place known to all residents of the Boston musical community who spend an inordinate amount of time on Huntington Ave between Symphony and Jordan Halls. Meeting with Margie is always a good way to catch up on the plights of the over-privileged New England sports fan, but this particular meeting started a pattern that would replicate itself several times in the following weeks.

The basic purpose of these meetings was to ask people that I trusted whether or not starting a new orchestra was really a good idea. Not only did the answer come back the same every time, it came back quickly and with enthusiasm: Yes. And the advice was overflowing.

Margie had great ideas about how an orchestra could form close relationships with non-musical organizations in the community. As an event planner she also had a lot of suggestions about venues in the area that would be suited to our mission.

When I met with Tom Novak, the Dean of Students at NEC, he set me down the right path regarding the legal matters of incorporating a new organization. He also connected me with Fractured Atlas, our fiscal sponsor. He’d been through the process of being on the board of a new orchestra before and had great insight into the possible pitfalls and how to stay out of them. Perhaps most importantly, he put me in touch with Rachel Roberts, Director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department at NEC, whose role in this story will have to wait for the next post.

Meeting with David Loebel, Associate Director of Orchestras at NEC, was positively illuminating. Not only was he bubbling over with enthusiasm for the project, exemplifying one of his best traits as a person and mentor, but he shared some concepts from when he had experimented with casual concert settings during his tenure as Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. One of them in particular, the idea of having audience members actually sit in the orchestra itself, is one of the most exciting aspects of the concert model for our Ignite event in March.

Hugh Wolff, Director of Orchestras at NEC and my teacher when I was getting my Masters Degree, left an important mark on Phoenix as well. We got to talking about programming and he mentioned he wasn’t sure music like the Adagietto from Mahler 5 would fit in the atmosphere we were going for. I pointed out that if we couldn’t play music that was soft and intimate then the essential thesis of the orchestra, that the primary hurdle keeping people from enjoying classical music was the context in which it’s presented, was flawed. He nodded and responded, “Then there should be fresh ink on the program too, right?” referring to new music. He was right, and if you look at the program for Ignite you’ll find two pieces by living composers.

But how...?

All of these meetings contributed to what the orchestra was becoming in its early stages. They all left a distinct mark that can still be seen in our mission today and will be on display on March 24th. Kate and Maya became essential members of the Phoenix team. Over the following weeks and months that team would grow in big and important ways that I'll have to leave for another post.

So we had a team. We had an idea that was beginning to take shape. But now we had to actually start an orchestra and figure out how to launch it. And, desperately, the orchestra still didn’t have a name. And proposal documents and financial projections that constantly referred to it as, “The Ensemble,” were starting to get a bit ridiculous.