Seeing how our knowledge of classical music pretty much begins with scores for Bugs Bunny cartoons and ends with the intro to Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction," it's little wonder that renowned New York conductor Jonathan Sheffer is feeling a little hostile toward us writer types.
"I want to take the critics and slap them," he says with a laugh over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton on a recent Tuesday morning. "Don't put that in the article," he quickly adds with a grin.
But if Sheffer is venting a bit, his irritation is understandable. He's the conductor and creative director of Red, a new Cleveland orchestra. Red's aim is to enliven the classical music experience, which laymen like us tend to rank next to proctologist exams.
It's this negative image of classical concertgoing that Sheffer is trying to combat. Eight years ago, Sheffer founded New York's EOS Orchestra, which spiced up its presentation by incorporating theatrical elements. Red was formed last year to do much the same in Cleveland -- and help stem the criticism that classical music is a stuffy, antiquated art form.
"I had an interest in trying to address a problem that I was reading about over and over, which is that classical music is dying, the audience is older, and there's no music education," Sheffer says. "The problem with articles like that is that they're self-fulfilling. If I was to write an article every other Sunday and say Cleveland is a pigsty, who would want to live here? So I sort of thought, let's just try to start talking about solutions. Let's make music exciting to people."
At Red's debut, this meant bringing life-sized puppets into the fold. Yeah, we know -- puppets at an orchestra is kinda like John Tesh at a doily contest. Doesn't exactly overload the excitement level. But after catching Red's debut at the Gartner Auditorium in the Cleveland Museum of Art last week, we'll admit that Sheffer has done a nice job of creating a welcoming environment for both classical diehards and those on the fringes of the scene.
From the onset, Red's performance was as vibrant as it was virtuosic. With Sheffer's energy at the helm, leading an unorthodox presentation that included Old World drinking songs, a violinist in leather pants, and towering puppets that bitch-slapped one another, it all added up to one of the more enjoyable shows we've seen this year.
Most impressively, Sheffer didn't dumb-down the source material en route to broadening its appeal. Quite the opposite: His selections were blithe and mercurial, a strong blend of beautiful Spanish ballads and more celebrated works, like Maurice Ravel's Bolero. Best of all, despite the heady, difficult nature of much of the music, Sheffer didn't make us feel like Forrest Gump at a spelling bee.
"My interest has always been how classical music can be made more interesting to experience for people who might not be at the level where they can completely understand all the subtleties," Sheffer says. "That comes after years of going to concerts and knowing the history of classical music. There must be another way to experience [it] if you're not that kind of a person, and who is that kind of a person?"
Certainly not us, which is why we're looking forward to the rest of Red's season. In March, the orchestra is putting on Celluloid Copland, which explores the film compositions of Aaron Copland. In April, the ensemble will be performing Sheffer's original program Mr. Theremin, if You Please!, a celebration of the crossover between rock and classical music.
Of course, intermingling the unconventional with the traditional in a genre as haughty as classical music isn't without its drawbacks: It's not hard to imagine purists grumbling that accoutrements like big-ass puppets marginalize the music.
"It's not meant to be a distracting sideshow," Sheffer counters. "You're there to hear classical music; it's just that it's going to be a little bit different than what you're used to. I hate looking around the audience and seeing people sleeping when I'm at a concert. It pains me."
Thanks to Sheffer, those concerts now pain us much less.