THE ONCOMING DECADES will continue to be a challenge for symphony and chamber orchestras in the US. As audiences for classical music skew older and attention spans get shorter by the minute, the forecast is grim: It's simply not going to get any easier to fill the seats and subscriptions for classical concerts around much of the nation.
The folks behind these august institutions would do well to talk to Mike Hsu. First violinist for the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and a fine composer, the 35-year-old is taking the music out of the staid confines of the concert hall with his new project, the Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland (ARCO-PDX).
"We're stuck in this presentation that's left over from the 19th century," Hsu says. "It used to be an exercise in cultural sophistication to dress up, go to a concert, stay quiet, and pay attention. But these days, if you don't know the piece, you can't expect people to stare at the musicians and for the players to have no interaction with the audience. We don't need that anymore."
With this in mind, ARCO's events—the first of which takes place this Saturday at Mississippi Studios—eschew all the mainstays of typical classical concerts. As the name of the group suggests, all of the instruments will be amplified. And the players will use effects and loop pedals to fill out the various parts of a composition. The players are also expected to memorize the pieces in order to play without music in front of them. (This week's program includes selections composed by C.P.E. Bach and new music from Hsu.) And to add a little rock concert flair to the show, an elaborate light show will accompany each piece.
Hsu has also taken some hints from Classical Revolution PDX, the ever-evolving ensemble that brings chamber music into cafés and bars, in the hope that other players will be equally inspired to start a version of ARCO in their hometown.
"I'm aiming to set a precedent that this is how you attract audiences to a classical concert," he says. "And I want this to be replicated."
Hsu's vision is not just a breath of fresh air—it's also a brave look into the future of classical music.