Unorthodox Performances

Sympho performs at New York's Park Avenue Armory, February 2011

Sympho performs at New York's Park Avenue Armory, February 2011

Earlier this week I had the fortune of having a conversation with Paul Haas. Paul is the Founder and Artistic Director of musical ensemble Sympho.

Sympho is grounded in a very specific vision for what classical music can be in the 21st Century: collaborative, engaging and mobile. Others innovating in the world of classical music are doing so by inviting new technologies and partners into the traditional concert hall venue. Sympho—which is described on its website as a concert production company--is getting up out of the concert hall, stepping into and being informed by unusual and unorthodox performance spaces.

In that spirit, two weeks ago on the evening of February 16th Paul and creative collaborators Paul Fowler and Bora Yoon co-conducted an extraordinary musical piece, ARCO, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. The piece was the lead performance for the Armory’s four-day Tune-In contemporary music festival.

Commissioned as a one-time only event for the occasion, ARCO was a ninety minute journey across time, life and continents, exquisitely staged and choreographed to play to the Armory Drill Hall’s epic size and unique elevations, while creating an intimate connection with and embrace of its audience. It was a piece of grand proportion, befitting the space. And it was powered by collaboration between the three composer/directors, between new music and old, between orchestra, voice and electronica, between past and present and between East and West.

Struck by the scope, breadth and impermanence of ARCO, I tracked Paul down to learn more about his creative imagination. Yale and Julliard trained, in our 30 minute conversation he shared a thought process that is not only musically informed, but also passionate, rigorous, verbally precise, deeply spiritually attuned and ambitious.

Paul's vision for Sympho has resonated with audiences since 2006, when he conducted Rewind, his first experimental concert for the group, generating lines around the block and a stand out review from the New York Times. What he articulated to me, in discussing the creative process associated with developing ARCO, is that it also resonates deeply with musical producers--the Armory gave him complete artistic freedom in extending the commission to him--and with fellow creatives--he, Paul Fowler and Bora Yoon established a "complete-each-other's-sentences" type of flow in their composing, directing and staging of the piece.

I asked about performing a creation like ARCO just once, after so much effort, heart and soul goes into creating it. The only regret he noted is not being able to see and experience the piece himself, as a member of the audience. ARCO explored large, sweeping themes in a large, sweeping space. The natural segue is to move to explore them on a micro level, which Sympho will do next spring, likely in a chamber setting.

At the end of our conversation I asked Paul who his dream collaborative partners would be. He laughed. Then, after noting that he had an endless list of amazing minds he’d like to work with, said if he had to pick a few, Björk and Johnny Greenwood and Thom York of Radiohead would spring to the top of the list. Experimental, edgy, epic, pathbreaking. Appropriate.

What Paul didn’t share with me in our conversation, but I learned on my own after we spoke, is that at the same time he and his ARCO partners were developing that piece, he was also stepping into his new role as Musical Director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, preparing for its first season in two years, opening on March 17th in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as well as developing a piece for Hope Mohr Dance group premiering tomorrow in San Francisco. Apparently he is gifted not only with creative vision, but also boundless energy and stamina!

Absent attending a Sympho performance, a good place to begin to get a sense of the scope of the Sympho vision is the language on the group’s website. Words and phrases like visceral, spatial positioning, invigorate and ecstasy pepper the descriptions of Sympho’s work. You can hear Paul speak in detail about ARCO and the creative process he and his partners used to compose and create the piece here. The Financial Times' review of the concert is here and a video trailer of the 2006 New York performance of Rewind is below. You can also see a trailer for the 2008 San Francisco performance of Rewind here.