Recently, Sir Mix-a-Lot appeared with the Seattle Symphony to perform his signature song “Baby Got Back,” with orchestration by Gabriel Prokofiev (composer and grandson of the famous Russian). Video of the performance has gone viral on Youtube, with over 2 million views in less than a week.
The concert was a special occasion, for two reasons. It was part of the Symphony’s Sonic Evolution series, premiering new works inspired by pop and jazz legends with a local connection, including Bill Frisell and Jimi Hendrix. It was also part of the League of American Orchestras annual convention, and was offered as a model for new audience development, something orchestras need desperately.
The Sonic Evolution series looks like a very good idea – kudos to Seattle and its music director, Ludovic Morlot, for committing to it over the last few seasons. I assume it’s successful and hope it continues to be.
What I’m interested in here is the appearance by Sir Mix-a-Lot and the reactions it has provoked. As James Oestreich put it in his NY Times review of the concert: “No question, many orchestra managers present must have positively drooled at the energy in the hall and the number of teenagers in the audience.” And let’s not forget those 2 million youtube views – how often does an orchestra concert get that kind of attention?
When you look at the media coverage of the concert, much of it is about the novelty of having Sir Mix-a-Lot and the Seattle Symphony on the same stage – the incongruity was the main attraction.
Later in his review, Oestreich writes: “I won’t presume to review things so far outside my ken as Sir Mix-a-Lot. But I am left to wonder what a symphony orchestra can meaningfully add to this kind of repertory…And how any of this may speak to the future of American orchestras I have to leave to those more visionary than I. Presumably there were some in the audience.”
I hope those orchestra administrators are thinking about Oestreich’s question – I think orchestras and hiphop could do a lot together. What if the next step was a more substantive collaboration between Prokofiev and Sir Mix-a-Lot? Maybe some of those first time visitors to the hall would come back to see what they produced together.
Most pops concerts are designed to bring fans of the headliner to the concert hall – what’s difficult is getting those folks to come back for Mahler the next week.
Making the connection from one to the other is tricky, but as someone who gives programs designed to build that bridge, I’ve got some ideas about how this might work. Good hiphop is imaginative in combining sounds, attentive to words and their rhythm, and often has a strong social message. You could say the same thing about much of Steve Reich‘s music – a piece like his “Different Trains” would be a perfect way to start.
What about a program featuring works of composers who work with sounds and words the way hiphop artists do, like Reich, alongside pieces by hiphop composers themselves?
What about a concerto for DJ Spooky, who’s already collaborated with classical groups like Brooklyn Rider and the Telos Ensemble, or DJ Rekha, who’s sampled late Beethoven Quartets in her work? So, let’s hear some ideas, people! If you are a composer, who from the “pop” world would you like to work with? If you are a pop fan, who would you like to see featured in a collaboration with an orchestra?