Many are those who worry about the decline of classical music. The Synergy Brass Quintet is not among them. Devoted to strenthening classical music by making it appeal to a new generation, Synergy has hit on a magical approach — unadulterated exuberance, YouTube videos, a MySpace site, in-school performances during the afternoons at the venues where they have evening performances, and a self-described decidedly non-classical rock star approach of performing without music stands or chairs. Synergy members are Bobby Thorp and Chris O’Hara, trumpets; Jon Hurrell, horn; Bo Clifton, trombone; and Adam Pijanowski, tuba.
The quintet plays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 26, at the Clinton Presbyterian Church in Clinton, concluding the month-long Raritan River Music Festival, which features chamber music at picturesque, historic locations in bucolic western New Jersey, such as Prallsville Mills in Stockton. Now in its 18th season, the festival is organized by guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman.
“There’s absolutely nothing here,” Synergy trumpeter Thorp says via a cellphone interview as the ensemble travels with all their paraphernalia in Colorado’s desert country on its way to a school program in a remote area called La Junta.”
On YouTube, the members of Synergy energetically weave, bob, and gyrate as they play music from the Renaissance to the present day. Images of sparks burst out of their instruments, and other images include an Easter egg hunt in a deserted area someplace in the southwest. Thorp explains, “Our fan base is mostly young, and we make fun videos for the kids to watch. We’re shooting fireworks out of our horns. The Easter egg hunt is at Area 51, where UFOs are supposed to have landed. Everywhere we go, we shoot videos and put them on the Internet. The kids really love them.”
How can he be sure about the ages of Synergy’s fans, I wonder. Having listened to a Synergy demo recording, I count myself among Synergy’s fans. In my mind they play adult fare. “We know that kids are in the audience because we do so many school performances,” Thorp says. “Most of the links to our website come from My Space. That’s a kids’ website. Also, we get lots of E-mail.” Conn-Selmer, the leading manufacturer of band instruments, has signed Synergy on as its premier brass quintet and sponsors many of Synergy’s school performances.
Synergy makes itself at home in the schools. “We gave 286 performances in 2006,” Thorp says. “We’ll have more in 2007. Sometimes we do three or four concerts a day. We start out with an evening concert scheduled at a certain venue. So rather than sit on our butts in a hotel room or a hot tub, we go out early in the morning to meet kids in their band room. After we play for kids in band class, we do a presentation for the whole school. We talk to the kids about not using drugs, and about not drinking and driving. We talk to them about teen pregnancy.”
Synergy uses rock performers as their model. “Rock music is the number one thing today because rock musicians are playing what people want to hear and playing it how they want to hear it. People in a rock band learned to play their instruments in bars and basements. Rock musicians have direct contact with their audience,” says Thorp.
Synergy has the advantage of youth in persuading a new generation. The ensemble is only slightly removed in age from their school audiences. At 30, Thorp is the oldest member of the group. The others are in their 20s. “We’re the youngest group that does what we do,” says Thorp, comparing Synergy with the dozen or so brass quintets in the music world. We’ll be rocking for a long time.”
“We’re doing our best to revitalize classical music and show that it’s fun. We make it more interactive. The first thing is, we don’t use any music stands. Other classical musicians don’t go on stage without a music stand. In my opinion that’s because they’re too lazy to memorize two hours worth of music. When the music is memorized it gives you a greater connection with the audience. If there’s no music stand there’s zero barrier between you and the audience. You can look into people’s eyes, and play right into their soul.
“Also, we don’t use chairs so we can jump off the stage and play directly at somebody. If we see someone who looks like they’re not having a good time, we’ll go right up to them and play till they laugh. If you’re used to going to concerts and sitting with your arms folded, watch out at our concerts because a trombonist with a huge Afro is likely to end up sitting next to you.” Thorpe is talking about Jon Hurrell, the Synergy hornist, who has massive hair.
“People ask if we plan our choreography,” Thorp says, referring to Synergy’s habit of vigorously regrouping as they play. “We never work on choreography. We’re doing what the music says to do, doing it in movement. It’s like turning on iTunes (on your computer) and seeing the colors change to match the music. We’re physically representing what’s happening so people can see whether it’s a solo or a duet. With a visual representation people walk away from our concerts excited because they understand everything that happened. We’ve communicated emotionally.”
Synergy was founded 11 years ago as a student group at Boston University when Thorp and Chris O’Hara, Synergy’s other trumpet player, were matched up as roommates. Horn player Jon Hurrell also attended Boston University. Trombonist Bo Clifton has University of North Texas credentials. Tuba-player Adam Pijanowski studied at the University of Illinois.
“Synergy started out as something fun to do,” Thorp says. “Then, we realized that we had the ability to make it a career. We started working locally in Boston, at school shows and weddings. Then we got dates to play at churches and in concert halls.
“We play a lot of transcriptions of orchestral music,” Thorp says. “A lot of our repertoire is 20th century music.” He links the repertoire for brass quintet to the late development of brass instruments. “Brass quintet has only been around for about 100 years. Putting valves on brass instruments so they could play chromatically started only about 150 years ago. Beethoven and Mozart were dead by then. They had a natural trumpet. It was made of wood and leather, had a mouthpiece the size of an acorn, and was fingered like a recorder. If you played high enough you could get a couple of notes.
“The present members of Synergy are the most fantastic group of friends I’ve ever hung out with or played with,” Thorp continues. “We’re on the road for 10 months a year. It’s like being perpetually on vacation with friends. We have to perform but then we can do whatever the heck we want. We ask each other what are our dreams in life, and we plan those things into our tour. That’s why we got to New Orleans, rode donkeys through the Grand Canyon, and swam with a manatee in Florida.”
Thorp admits the group is having a good time but says they also want to strengthen classical music. “The only way to do that is to educate a new generation. Getting pop performers to perform with classical orchestras is not the answer. You don’t have to water down classical music. You just have to change the presentation. You have to reeinvent yourself so the next generation can understand. You have to give people a chance to have a good time. You have to let people clap between movements, even clap after a terrific solo.
“My idea of a good classical concert is if a riot breaks out. I’d like to remove the first three rows of seats so people can have a mosh pit like they do at rock concerts, where people can stand and dance and push each other around.
“At the time of Beethoven and Haydn, going to a concert was like going to rock concert today,” Thorp says. “Audiences had fun, and they let the performers know it. In the time of Beethoven, audiences would stand up and yell and scream and the orchestra would re-play the piece. Not applauding till the whole piece was over started with Stokowski. That’s crap.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker music writer, notes in a 2005 blog: “At the end of the 1920s Leopold Stokowski [conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra] convinced himself that applause during symphonies intruded on the divinity of the concert experience.”
Synergy rocks, not only on stage, but on recordings. Their discography includes three discs. “Transmission,” “Music of the Renaissance and Baroque,” and Samuel Adler’s “A Prophecy of Peace.” Emeritus professor at the Eastman School of Music, Adler attended a Synergy concert and asked the quintet to join the 40 members of Gloriae Dei Cantores in recording sacred choral music from various religious traditions, which he wrote over a period of 35 years.
Synergy’s fourth recording, now in production, is a collection of the top 10 pieces for organ and brass, and the organist is Lawrenceville resident Michael Diorio. Diorio is organist at the Lawrenceville School and serves also at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He overlapped at Boston University with the three Synergy members.
“I was the organist in a church in Lexington (in 2003). Bobby told me to let him know if I ever needed a brass group and gave me his card,” Diorio says in a telephone interview. “I invited them to play at my church, and they incorporated me into their group as their organist.”
Diorio has contracted Synergy’s exuberance. “They’re so energized,” he says, “working with them leaves no time for nervousness or anxiety.”
Synergy Brass Quintet, Saturday, May 26, 7:30 p.m. Raritan River Music Festival, Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton. $23. 908-213-1100.
Directions: Take Route 31 North for 10 miles after Flemington traffic circle, toward Clinton. Cross over I-78; turn right immediately after going under overpass, following signs for Clinton, Flemington, Route 31 South. Keep turning right to cross over that overpass. Come down on the other side of Route 31. Turn right at traffic light with car wash on the left onto Center Street. Go one-half mile to the white church on the right.