Signs of progress

The new ensemble Signal fills a major gap in the contemporary music scene.

I’M WITH THE BAND Renowned new-music specialist Brad Lubman introduces the promising chamber orchestra Signal this weekend.

I’M WITH THE BAND Renowned new-music specialist Brad Lubman introduces the promising chamber orchestra Signal this weekend.

New York City is positively awash in excellent new-music ensembles right now—to a point. Small groups of four, six and even ten members are everywhere, catering to composers of every stylistic inclination. New bands are popping up at a head-spinning pace. But what the city—and, in fact, the entire country—still lacks are mixed ensembles of the 20- to 30-member size. Think of the impact that prominent European institutions such as the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Intercontemporain have had on the development of modern music, and the need for such groups here becomes evident.

In recent years, the still-young Alarm Will Sound has made a huge splash in the local pool with its omnivorous mix of minimalists, maximalists, ambitious rockers and electronica knob-twirlers. The upstart Manhattan Sinfonietta and the Argento Ensemble (a nonet that swells as needed), meanwhile, have served as stalwart gardeners of thorny modernism. Now, into the fray hurtles a promising newcomer: Signal, a 22-piece chamber orchestra headed by music director Brad Lubman and cellist–executive director Lauren Radnovsky. The group makes its local debut during Saturday 31’s Bang on a Can Marathon, performing Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations at the stroke of midnight.

A regular presence on European podiums—including those of the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern and musikFabrik—Lubman is best known here for his work with the American Composers Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Since 1997 he has taught conducting at the Eastman School of Music; among his students was Alarm Will Sound’s Alan Pierson. The spark that led to Signal was touched off in June 2007, when Lubman was asked to form an ensemble to play an all–Steve Reich concert for the June in Buffalo festival. He and Radnovsky summoned the best players available, drawing from Alarm Will Sound, Newspeak and Anti-Social Music, not to mention the entire lineup of So Percussion.

“During the first rehearsal, I said, ‘This is amazing, and we have to find a way to keep it going,’_” Lubman says by phone from Rochester, New York. “When you work with an orchestra that’s been together for many years, and that’s had one music director for a decent amount of time, there’s a kind of coherence that goes above and beyond just assembling a hot group of players. And this was absolutely essential: very carefully chosen people who are not only great musicians, but that will work together and create just the right chemistry.”

Characteristic of Signal’s recruits is clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Ken Thomson, who is also active with Anti-Social Music and leads the busy punk-jazz quartet Gutbucket. As Thomson sees it, even for musicians already balancing more projects than they have fingers on which to count them, Signal offers something unique. “For me, it’s pretty simple: a dedication to the art of really excellent playing with friends and colleagues who I trust and admire, who are largely on the same page musically, under the incredible guidance of Brad Lubman,” he says. “It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to be part of what will hopefully be one of the premier chamber orchestras in the country.”

Thomson’s hope is Lubman’s intention. Signal’s schedule includes performances of Reich’s music at the Ojai Festival in June and at (Le) Poisson Rouge in September, as well as a tour with German avant-gardist Helmut Lachenmann—a clear sign of its stylistic breadth. Ambitious multimedia collaborations with Boom Design Group are in the works. And emerging composers will surely flock to an ensemble capable of handling pieces that draw upon rock, jazz, techno and world-music idioms—music that traditional institutions rarely treat with sympathy or flair. “It’s a very different story when you have a group that has grown up with all sorts of different styles and is at home with electronica, multimedia, you name it,” Lubman says. “So here we are, fulfilling that.”

Signal performs during the Bang on a Can Marathon at the World Financial Center Sat 31.