Philharmonic convergence

Bach mingles with rock in the Wordless Music Series.

Explosions in the Sky
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE Explosions inthe Sky (above) and Gilles Vonsattelhave participated in the successfulWordless Music Series.

Photo: EITS

Among all of the cures currently being sought for classical music’s perceived malaise, finding a way to attract the interest of younger listeners is viewed as perhaps the single most desirable panacea. Some institutions have simply slapped a fresh coat of paint on the old jalopy; others let teens have a hand in programming. All could benefit from taking a closer look at the Wordless Music Series, founded last year by Ronen Givony. In his inaugural season, Givony introduced large, enthusiastic crowds to the music of Bach, Bartók and Steve Reich by pairing it with performances by innovative post-rock and electronica acts.

Ironically, one could argue that the secret to his success is a lack of formal indoctrination. Givony, 28, graduated from Yale University with a master’s degree in English literature in 2001, before working in development for the New World Symphony, a progressive orchestra of young professional musicians based in his hometown of Miami Beach. “I was known as the guy who listened to Wilco, Radiohead and Pearl Jam,” he says. “I had zero knowledge of classical music.”

Gilles Vonsattel

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

While those orchestral concerts were failing to engage Givony, an overindulgence in rock shows led to temporary burnout. “It was at that point that I discovered electronic music and classical chamber music simultaneously,” he recalls. His interest deepened when he took a grant-writing job with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 2005. (He also launched and maintained the society’s personable blog, intermissionimpossible.org.)

“It was a world that I completely fell in love with, and I thought to myself, It’s weird that someone would go hear [post-rock band] Explosions in the Sky, but the idea of going to hear the Schubert Quintet is completely foreign to them,” Givony says. He presented the Chamber Music Society with a proposal for a new series that would combine chamber music with post-rock and electronica. While the society ultimately decided not to adopt the proposal, they gave him free rein to explore it on his own.

Givony’s planning shifted into high gear in early 2006, when an encounter with Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche at the Bang on a Can Marathon led to the first show in the Wordless Music Series last September: a bill that included Kotche’s duo with guitarist Nels Cline, contemporary-classical pianist Jenny Lin and omnivorous downtown composer-performer Elliott Sharp at Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church. Givony takes pride in the fact that the series is a completely self-sufficient entity that breaks even on ticket sales alone. “I showed everyone my budget,” he says. “I don’t pay myself anything; I give as much as possible back to the performers. It’s easy to be transparent when you’re not making any money and you don’t have anything to hide.” A mounting buzz drove strong ticket sales, with several shows selling out.

Givony’s approach proved just as attractive to the classical performers he was booking. Gilles Vonsattel, a prizewinning 26-year-old pianist who shared a bill with Icelandic quartet Amiina and Oregon electronic performer Eluvium, suggests that the program more accurately reflects what he and others his age are listening to. “I spend more time listening to nonclassical music than classical,” he says. The music Vonsattel selected after hearing the acts with whom he appeared, Bartók’s Out of Doors, fit beautifully alongside Amiina’s gnomic miniatures and Eluvium’s shoegazer landscapes.

Success ultimately carried a price. Compelled by his employers to choose between his position at the Chamber Music Society and continuing the Wordless Music Series, Givony picked the latter. The fall season is already booked with popular indie-rock acts and savvy classical fare. Early next year comes a genuine coup: the first New York performance of orchestral music by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood. While he may be at loose ends temporarily, Givony retains a passion for his mission. “It’s no big insight to know that Explosions in the Sky can sell 750 seats,” he says. “The part I’m proud of is that those people come to see Explosions in the Sky, but you’ve made them sit through [Steve Reich’s] Nagoya Marimbas to start. That’s the fun part.”

The Wordless Music Series opens with Do Make Say Think and Electric Kompany at the New York Society for Ethical Culture Sept 14.