Ixi Chen and five other musicians gather around a king-size bed in the master suite of a Hyde Park home, preparing themselves for a private performance. Their instrument cases are spread out on top of the bedspread, alongside a plush little dog and Dwight Parry, whose day job is principal oboist for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “Sometimes an orchestra is like a big train,” says Parry, explaining the contrasting appeal of concert:nova, the musician-led chamber group that Chen founded in 2006. “It’s awesome, but it’s only going in one direction.”
Parry, Chen, and the other 20 or so members of C:N certainly enjoy riding that train, but they also yearn to stretch their own creative limbs—to plan ambitious programs for smaller, chamber-sized groups that bring them and the classical music they love closer to audiences. Underline ambitious. Over the last year, C:N has gone from performing in the dark to incorporating an entire dance program—outdoors, in the punishing summer heat. That takes dedication. So why put themselves through all that?
“We like each other,” Chen says. “This is something we like to do on our own time. It’s a way [for us] to reach out and connect all the talent in the community.”
Plus, it’s fun. And the music is just the starting point. Over the last five years, concert:nova has partnered with visual artists, actors, and dancers, and has played in a basement, a black box theater, nightclubs, living rooms, and in a courtyard where birds provided unexpected accompaniment. The elevated stage and lighting at Music Hall, where many C:N members play as part of the CSO, creates something of a divide between the musicians and the audience; breaking down such barriers has been a driving force behind C:N’s success.
“It’s about bringing music into new spaces,” Parry says. “It provides an atmosphere of intimacy that you don’t get anywhere else.” The house party, at the home of C:N enthusiast and board member Al Lopez, is just one example. Parry encourages houseguests to ask questions. He enjoys breaking down the music, explaining its origins, its evolution, its context. “It is not a stuffy crowd,” he says. “We’re here to share music and have a good time.”
It helps that they also bring a wealth of experience—pedigrees that belie the “not polished” label they use to describe their iconoclastic performances. In addition to serving as the managing artistic director for C:N, Chen, who is 36, is the second clarinet at CSO, the former principal clarinetist of the American Symphony, and teaches lessons and master classes at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Parry was a fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami (with its founder and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas) and played for the San Diego Symphony. Acclaimed violinist Tatiana Berman attended the Royal College of Music in London and gives recitals around the world. Lisa Conway, who plays French horn for the CSO, studied at Yale and Julliard. And Randy Bowman, CSO’s principal flutist for more than 20 years, serves in the same role for the American Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency at the Bard Music Festival.
An interesting by-product of all that brainpower is the group’s desire to experiment. Part of why they started concert:nova was to give themselves time and space to gather with like-minded musicians and explore how to make classical music more accessible. In this democratic environment, C:N’s seasons follow unexpected artistic paths. “We’re open to doing anything,” Bowman says.
He’s not kidding. Remember that performance in the dark? It was the result of an unorthodox partnership with a local neurologist who was interested in exploring the role of sight in listening to music. Another concert mixed a performance of
Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters (an album he recorded with the Brodsky Quartet in 1993) with recitations of poetry. The takeaway for C:N members? “You can communicate your ideas more,” Bowman says.
Case in point: One of Chen’s original concepts was to work with dancers, an idea that came to fruition in Cincinnati Art Museum’s courtyard this past summer. The Art of Dance, the last public event of C:N’s fourth season, featured two pieces commissioned by the late dance icon Martha Graham—Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Samuel Barber’s Cave of the Heart. The latter featured seven pieces with eight dancers and six choreographers; there were even blood-soaked zombies involved. C:N’s version of Appalachian Spring celebrated a same-sex marriage—an update that even
Graham may not have foreseen. “Dance helps find a way to illuminate in three dimensions what the music is,” Chen explains.
The aim of these collaborations is to engage all of the senses. During The Art of Dance, musicians swayed as dancers moved. Their eyes connected; their heads dipped; they exchanged grins. But of course, daring performances come freighted with practical concerns. With an average audience size of “sold out” and an e-mail list of nearly 700, Chen must tend to details. And logistics. “Little” things the audience (hopefully) isn’t privy to—a dance floor installed so close to the ensemble that the conductor had to stand on it while dancers whirled past; a last-minute piano switch because the original one could not be used outdoors; and oh yeah, an ungodly hot summer night. “Things fall into place,” Chen says, laughing. “You do your best and usually things work out.”
Another original C:N dream will make it onto their roster this winter: the electrical chamber music of Frank Zappa. “It is going to be a stretch,” Chen says. It took nearly two years of negotiations with the Zappa Family Trust to get the rights to play the work, but Chen was undaunted. “We don’t get to play that kind of music [in the symphony],” she says. “It gives us a chance to unleash our creative juices.”
She checks herself. Despite her wealth of knowledge and talent, Chen has a habit of mixing idioms—a habit so ingrained that her college roommate kept a list. She laughs again. Chalk it up to concert:nova’s “not polished” charm.
On Oct. 15, concert:nova kicks off its six-concert season with a performance at the Constella Festival,
a new local arts and cultural celebration orchestrated by C:N’s own world-renowned violinist, Tatiana Berman.
Baby on Board
Chen’s busy fall includes at least a few days away from the stage. She and husband Theodore Nelson, CSO and C:N cellist, expect their first child in November.
explores chamber music and regime change with a mix of drama through the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
This C:N season also features a savory two-week Festival of Food and Music, a performance with the Vocal Arts Ensemble at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and a new collaboration featuring both ballet and opera.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue.