Arts & Culture

Q&A with Symphony One

We talk to Baltimore's newest classical ensemble on the heels of its debut album.

Introducing Baltimore’s newest classical music ensemble—Symphony Number One. On the heels of an accomplished debut album, the young symphony aims to bridge the boundaries between the genre’s past, present, and future by highlighting emerging composers and talented local musicians through compositions new and old.

And now, just days before the release of their second record, co-founder and music director Jordan Randall Smith talks to us about the next generation of classical music, tackling the diversity gap, and calling Baltimore its home.

So what is Symphony Number One?
The name itself is a distillation of our mission. ‘Symphony’ has the dual meaning of being a group of musicians, but it also refers to the genre. And a ‘symphony number one’ is a composer’s first symphony, indicating that it’s early on in their career. They are still emerging composers, right on the cusp of establishing themselves. Meanwhile, Mozart’s 41st symphony was the last symphony he wrote.

Simple, straightforward.
We had to remind ourselves that people in the classical music world kind of start drinking the Kool-Aid, but we really hope the name makes people feel like, ‘Okay, I’m getting in on the ground floor of this thing, and I can find the composers more approachable.’ Because that’s the idea—they’re alive today, they’re just normal people, and this is relevant music.

How did it come to be?
I certainly can’t take credit for it. The format was an idea from one of our early co-founders, but Nick Bentz and Sean Meyers have both been very active in building this thing. They’re the ones I refer to as my co-founders. They’re the ones who really got in there with me to see it through the launch and beyond. I met them while working on my doctorate at Peabody. Back at our initial concert in May, 90 percent of our musicians were in some way or another affiliated with Peabody, but now we’re closer to 50/50. The other half is just a variety of fine Baltimore-Washington musicians. We definitely recognize our roots there—it’s been great to be captain to the younger portion of the Peabody community and we are very fond of Dean Fred Bronstein and his mission to create global musical citizens of the 21st century—but on the other hand, we kind of jokingly say we don’t want to be the Peabody kids’ table.

In that way, are you trying to fill a void that other area institutions aren’t addressing?
We do find ourselves being able to carve out a bit of a niche. On one hand, you have the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—music director Marin Alsop is one of my teachers at Peabody and is one of the strongest lions for new music in America—so it might seem like this is the worst city to try to do this. But they have a completely different business model. They’re a full-time orchestra, while we’re a performance orchestra. We can choose repertoires in a more adventurous way.

Which is where these emerging composers come in.
We’ve carved out an interesting niche, where we’re not avoiding a classical repertoire, since our first album has Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto and Fauré’s “Pavane,” but we’re definitely not a classical chamber orchestra. And we’re also not a conventional, new music ensemble, because the new music guys are supposed to be innovative, doing all kinds of exciting pieces, and we don’t do just that, either. We’ve tried to differentiate ourselves. We feature one contemporary or emerging composer each concert.

This first self-titled album features three symphonies—the Mozart, Fauré, and emerging composer Mark Fromm.
We really tried to give Mark as much freedom as possible to create his symphony. He wanted to write a one-movement symphony. It’s a very long track. Thirty minutes. The content of the music ends up driving a lot of our decision-making. But we were also just days away from our first rehearsal when the riots started in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. As you see on our album cover, the Baltimore War Memorial is where we rehearsed and performed. And that’s where they had the National Guard. They housed them in the War Memorial. Not everyone knew that at the time, but we certainly did, because we got kicked out. The album was recorded at the War Memorial, too, so what you’re getting is the actual live performance from May.

That was a heavy time to put on a concert.
At the time, we felt that going forward with the concert as it was, with no mind given to what had happened, just felt a bit flat.

And especially because you are a city symphony.
But we’re still building. I think of us like an app: We’ve built some features and we have other features left to still build in terms of our desire to reach communities all across Baltimore. At the concert, “Pavane” is a sort of sad remembrance piece, so that was a perfect fit. It served a dual function as an encore to the magnificent Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto, but also as a chance to catch our breath, take note of the moment we were in here in Baltimore, and really, truly acknowledge it.

In terms of reaching a variety of communities across Baltimore, would you say you have a target audience?
Our core value is to be a group that serves all of Baltimore. We feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to build a pretty strong online audience on Facebook. But in the 1950s or 1960s, there was a disconnect—and I think Marin would be the first to agree with this—where the modernist composers really pulled away from the public. A famous paper got written by Milton Babbitt called ‘Who Cares If You Listen?’ It said: ‘In the same way physicians might not want the public showing up to a physics convention, because they don’t know what they’re talking about, the classical music community doesn’t need them to listen to our professional music.’ And I think that is absolute trash. There’s a lot of very exciting music; it’s just a matter of helping people connect how it is relevant.

What about bridging the diversity gap that exists in classical music?
I feel very strongly about that. There are not a lot of great efforts out there in terms of expanding diversity, so we don’t have many models for success. In our first go-round, I think we had 92 entries in our call for scores, but it might have been like 78 white guys. This time we had 120 entries, which is a fantastic turnout, and it was a lot more diverse. But if you don’t even have the entries, you can’t even remotely have a shot at choosing a more diverse group of composers. We did a better job, but we still have a long way to go.

How many musicians do you have in the symphony now?
The core orchestra consists of 30 musicians at this point, ranging from 19 to 42 years old, from the musicians to the creative team, but because we’re a repertoire-driven orchestra, each concert is going to be a little different, based on what forces are called for. And this goes to our business model, too: The folks performing on stage are also the ones who managing the business. At one concert, the wind players were a part of our door team. They were greeting guests, taking tickets, accepting donations.

Tell me more about creating this album and the repertoire it includes.
Our ambition is to be a full-service stop on the path of an emerging composer who is developing their career. A piece of music needs to be prepared well and lovingly and it requires time for multiple performances, because one is just never long enough to really live in the skin of it. And then you have to record all of that, and composers need the equipment. And they need an orchestra. We can only be one small part of better serving that community and keeping the tradition of contemporary composers alive.

People always say we’ll never have another Mozart or even another Stravinsky, to borrow from the 20th century. Well, we’re certainly never going to have one if we don’t lavish these people with the attention that those earlier composers got by their contemporaries. Every piece on the recording represents a point of view that we feel like is worth keeping around on some level. I was so pleased with the amount of love and care that the musicians put into preparing their parts. We really want to help them get their music out there. Mark Fromm wasn’t on iTunes before, and now he is.

What are your goals for the coming year?
Right now, we have these two subscription concerts—in April and May—with two performances of each. Before both of those, we’ll have the special one-off performance at the Light City Festival on April 2, where we’re going to feature a number of composers and do a whole bunch of shorter, bite-sized pieces, like our take on a pop concert. When Light City chose us, we had only performed one concert, so we really appreciate them taking a chance.

We are also already knee-deep into preparing our second album, Emergence, which actually comes out February 1, and we have a tour, with plans for Peabody, Howard County, Frederick, and Washington D.C. We’re looking to do the MLK Library, too. And since we’re the ones running the organization, we have to switch hats a lot, so we’re judging the last round of our second call for scores, even as the first round is preparing to finish up their compositions for us to perform this spring.

How do you guys get by—or, to put it bluntly—funded?
I’d love to know myself. I don’t know how we’ve pulled it off this far. We started off using crowd funding, but you can’t permanently fund season after season with Kickstarter and Indiegogo. They’re designed to do exactly what they say they’re going to do, which is get you started. And it did that beautifully for us. We were also very fortunate that the Light City opportunity afforded us a pretty sizable grant of money to be able to support our concert and work this spring. That has really given us the opportunity to get out of simple survival mode and start thinking about growth.