Features & Columns

The Commons at St. James Park

Informal new concert series offers a new kind of music in St. James Park
Commons at St. James Park OPEN AIR ARIA: Soprano Rachel Larsen sings with the Awesome Orchestra Collective during their performance at St. James Park. Photograph by Nicolas Hadacek

I must admit, it has a ring to it: The Commons at St. James Park. In fact, it sounds almost British. Almost, um, cultured. Not what I expected.

But wait—when I say "the Commons," I'm not talking about some generic, mid-rise condominium complex. This is no City Heights, no Villa Paseo de Santana Torino Centara, or whatever the real estate creeps came up with. No, this was an event, a happening, a powwow for classical musicians of all sorts to perform and do their thing in a nontraditional, non-elitist, adventure-seeking environment.

Projects like Classical Revolution, Awesome Orchestra Collective and Dirty Cello all took part. It was almost goth in the way the organizers threw the whole setup together. I spotted candelabras, a DJ, plus merch tables and nearly 100 folks just camped out and watching the show. Some wandered up from the neighborhood, a few rode their bikes, and others, not even knowing what was up, just stopped by and stayed for the duration. Many of the crowd were not regular classical music connoisseurs. But they seemed convinced after the fact. The whole affair really made St. James Park seem like an authentic main-square public space--exactly what the city should have been doing all along.

The program was a refreshing change from formal concert music settings. No one handed out cough drops ahead of time. Instead of the audience sitting "in the round" and encircling the performers, it was vice-versa. The audience sat in the middle, and the various acts set up on the grass encircling the audience. The viewers could then simply shift positions in their seats and watch each performance unfold. The two heroes who organized this whole spectacle—Drew Clark and Freya Seeburger—arranged it that way on purpose, in order to break down the barrier between audience and performer, enabling the musicians, after performing, to simply fade into the audience with everyone else, and eat, drink and proceed to watch the next act. Bravo!

"We wanted to present it in a way that made everyone feel like they were involved," said Clark. "We wanted to have people walk into the experience and be surrounded by the music. And at the same time, not feel the social pressure to not socialize with the musicians. We wanted the musicians and the audience to be together."

It that sense, it was almost punk. Seeburger, a cello player herself, even said so: "I remember as a teenager going to punk shows and getting a flyer for the next show. Everything was five bucks, or free, and it was always all-ages. And you got to find new musicians and new bands to love, by word of mouth. That's the aesthetic we were going for." Bravissimo!

But just because this came together in a beleaguered park did not mean it was a throwaway gig. Everyone took it seriously and the musicianship was high-caliber. For example, when violinist Ishtar Hernandez and pianist Naomi Stine performed Edvard Grieg's Violin Sonata no. 3 in C minor, (Op. 45), it was a joy to watch.

Folk duo Narrators and crossover rock/classical artists Dirty Cello also performed. We shall say: Instead of taking the stage next, they took the grass next.

After the sun set over the western horizon, Awesome Orchestra Collective took over the scene. Imagine a flash mob in the form of an open rehearsal. Imagine 60 orchestral musicians, including percussion, brass, strings, woodwinds and more—many of whom hadn't played together before—all taking over a space in St. James Park to sight-read the Overture from The Marriage of Figaro, plus Aaron Copeland's Hoedown and even some pop stuff. That's essentially what happened. And if you thought Hoedown wouldn't work with incessant bells from the light-rail train in the background, well, think again. It rocked. Soprano Rachel Larsen even jumped in to sing a few arias plus "Everything Is AWESOME!!!" from The LEGOĻ Movie. That last one stuck in everyone's head for at least a few days afterward.

Each future installment of the Commons at St. James Park will feature its own theme. The next spectacle is planned for mid- to late-October.