New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra (NBCO) music director Mark Hyczko is taking seriously his mandate to lead the orchestra in new directions by launching a three-day festival — set for Friday through Sunday, June 13 to 15 — that joins instrumental music, vocal music, art, poetry, and dance.
The festival continues the impetus that began last year when NBCO added visual art to its concerts. The effort to mix in non-musical components has been dubbed “Reframing Classical Music.”
“We want to re-identify ourselves as a nimble orchestra that plays new, commissioned works and establishes itself as a brand,” Hyczko said last year (U.S. 1, May 1, 2013). “We are a small ensemble that looks for work by living composers and for recently written compositions.”
“Reframing Classical Music” in 2014 goes beyond single concerts to present a succession of novel projects in a festival format.
The festival opens with NBCO musicians informally playing string quartets at Alpha Art Gallery in New Brunswick on Friday, June 13. Paintings on display are by East Brunswick artist John Hawaka, the visual artist whose work is featured at the festival. “I paint to stimulate” Hawaka says. The participating musicians are principal NBCO players: violinists RuoTao Mao and Katarzyna Bryla, violist Ana Tsinadze, and cellist Jordan Enzinger. A free wine-and-cheese reception at 7 p.m. at the gallery accompanies the art and music.
On Saturday, June 14, the NBCO will provide live accompaniment for a joint performance with the Graham Lustig Dance Company. Rarely does the dance troupe perform with acoustic accompaniment. The event takes place at 7 p.m. in the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater at Douglass College in New Brunswick. Pieces to be performed include Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City,” Igor Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks Concerto,” Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings,” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
Lustig, artistic director of the company, trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and danced with the Dutch National Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. His more than 70 choreographic works have appeared on four continents.
On Sunday, June 15, the NBCO appears with John Sheridan’s New Brunswick Christ Church choir for a 4 p.m. performance of music by active contemporary composers Arvo Part, Christopher Theofanidis, Tarik O’Regan, and Edgar Girtain.
One highlight is Girtain’s “Four Catalan Songs.” Based on the poems of Vicent Andres Estelles (1924-1993), the song cycle will be performed in its entirety for the first time. The work was commissioned from Girtain, a composition fellow at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. The poems are titled “Llibre de meravelles” (Book of wonders), “L’amant” (The lover), “Dit de la mort al votant de les quatre del mati” (Finger of death about four in the morning) — a somber piece performed during the 2012-’13 season — and “Fundacions de la rabia” (Foundations of Rage).
Chuck Schneider is the baritone soloist in the Girtain work. Schneider — who has performed more than 30 operatic roles in more than 15 opera houses — is an adjunct professor of voice at Westminster and teaches at the Lawrenceville School.
Music director Hyczko has some strong board support in “reframing classical music.”
John Semmlow, president of the NBCO board, comes up with compelling considerations that led the ensemble to assemble a festival. “The NBCO has no programming limits,” he says during an interview at his home in New Brunswick. “We can offer exciting programs, and we want to increase our recognition. We hope to make an impact by putting together a festival that is more than music. We chose June because it’s a quiet month musically. We were interested in trying out the idea of back-to-back concerts; it makes logistical problems easier. This year is a preliminary to a full-blown two-week festival.”
Semmlow portrays the opening free event as a community service that both presents the NBCO to the public and gives the curious an opportunity to experience the orchestra without making a major commitment to its concerts. “There was a unanimous board decision to offer free concerts embedded in the festival. We were afraid that if we simply offered a free concert to make ourselves known people would say, ‘This is just an amateur group; otherwise, they would charge.’”
The NBCO started more than 50 years ago as a group of amateurs who gathered in private homes to play music for their own pleasure. Over time the ensemble became what Semmlow calls “a professional orchestra with a cadre of musicians who play with us on regular basis. We’re not a full-time orchestra. Our members play with prestigious groups in the New York metropolitan area,” he says.
“Although we have no musical boundaries, we believe that we need structure,” Semmlow says. “The structure comes from art. We use art as both structure and inspiration. Art inspires programming in ways that musical notation does not.”
The shape of the festival emerged gradually. Before the festival was planned the NBCO approached Lustig about a joint performance. Lustig was enthusiastic. As details were worked out it seemed obvious to tie the NBCO/Lustig concert to the traditional spring concert of the NBCO and the Christ Church choir. The idea for the reception surfaced when someone realized that such an undertaking would be the sort of opening that artists have.
Though he does not divulge costs or budget for the festival, Semmlow admits that it is expensive. “The dance program requires two additional rehearsals,” he says. “First the orchestra rehearses as it does for an ordinary concert. Then it must have additional rehearsals with the dancers.”
Semmlow has been a member of the NBCO board for about two decades and has been president the bulk of that time. Born in Chicago in 1942, he says, “My father was a ticket agent for a railroad (the Milwaukee Road), and my mother was a housewife who did factory assembly work. They had no interest in music, not even popular music. I played flute in the high school band but never progressed very far. My interest in classical music developed my first year of college when I had a roommate who only allowed classical music to be played when he was in the room. Since he was a sophomore, his word was law.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana) in 1964 Semmlow earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois (Chicago) in physiology and bioengineering in 1970. He has held academic appointments at the University of California (Berkeley) and the University of Chicago. In New Brunswick he has been a professor at Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The author of more than 100 articles in scientific journals and of a fistful of scientific books, Semmlow has also been a visiting professor in Marseille, France, and in Dayeh University, Taiwan.
Though he retired in 2012, Semmlow remains active professionally. Using an electronic workshop in his home, he is currently designing a diagnostic device for arterial disease that goes beyond the capabilities of the stethoscope. It “identifies turbulent blood flow in coronary artery disease by recording and identifying acoustic signatures too faint to be detected by stethoscopes,” he says.
Semmlow counts on the same workshop to pursue a second career as an artist, building what he calls “sculptures that move in interesting and intriguing ways.” He invites me to experience his two most recent pieces of computer-controlled kinetic art.
We stand in front of a panel on which is mounted transparent colored chunks of glass. Semmlow pushes a switch to shine a spotlight on the display. As the glass chunks rotate, the light produces changing patterns of glowing color.
We move on to an acoustic sculpture Semmlow calls “The Marchers.” He pushes the switch, and electromagnetically driven small plastic columns rise and then fall onto a metal plate to produce a marching beat. The sound is that of snare drums playing the varied irresistible rhythms of a marching band in the moments without melody.
Semmlow is also an avid folk dancer who has taught dance classes at Rutgers and at the ongoing Thursday evening Highland Park Folk Dance Group.
Yet Semmlow saves a sizable amount of time to keep the affairs of the NBCO in order. There have been four regular conductors during his tenure as president. About the NBCO’s present artistic director, Mark Hyczko, for whom the first season truly his own was 2012-’13, he says, “Mark is energetic, innovative, and driven to excellence.”
Self-deprecatingly, Semmlow says, “I have no musical training. But I want to be a musical supporter. The rewards are the concerts. Nobody enjoys writing the grants. The musicians spend a lot of time and effort first practicing separately, and then working together to become an ensemble. It’s a big effort behind the scenes. And then you need the talent of a director who brings it together in rehearsal and makes it work in performance. A concert, a live musical performance, is an extraordinary event.”
Reframing Classical Music Festival, New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra. Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Music, art, and wine and cheese, Alpha Art Gallery, 108 Church Street, New Brunswick. Free.
Saturday, June 14, 7 p.m. Performance with Lustig Dance Theater, Mastrobuono Theater, Douglass College, New Brunswick, $30 adults; $22 seniors; $15 students.
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. NBCO performance with Christ Church Choir, Christ Church, Church Street, New Brunswick. $20 adults; $15 seniors; $10 students. newbrunswickchamberorchestra.org/celebration-weekend or 732-249-6999.