This weekend, the South Carolina Philharmonic will deliver the four most iconic notes in the history of Western music, the central motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as part of its annual Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert. The familiar phrase will be repeated in front of a casually dressed audience, a performance that weaves contemporary traditions with the rich history of symphonic music in a way that now feels commonplace.
This year marks the 20th pairing of the composing giant and indigo-dyed denim for the orchestra, which has fully remade itself in the way that classical music organizations across the country are committing to innovative, audience-friendly approaches to keep symphonic music alive and relevant in the 21st century.
“If you look at it over the last 20 years or so, there have been a lot of efforts and activities [in that regard],” says Morihiko Nakahara, the Philharmonic’s music director. “There are all these cities that have had this ‘classical revolution,’ fill in the blank with the name of the city, in which you are taking music, ‘classical music,’ quote unquote, away from the rigid, formal concert setting into places where you wouldn’t expect it — into places like bars, coffee houses, out in the public, outside in the streets, and so on. You’re coming to see that more, more and more. Especially with chamber music, but with orchestras, too.”
Nakahara sees Beethoven and Blue Jeans as being in line with these efforts, but he also notes that the edginess of the idea has receded over the years.
“When this whole notion of Beethoven and Blue Jeans started, I think that the whole dress code in society was partly more — not more rigid, but it was more … compartmentalized?,” he offers. “I mean, Casual Fridays dress code at work was a big thing. Now, depending on the industry, you know, you see more informal, more casual dress on a regular basis. So the times have changed a little bit.”
But the underlying logic of the program remains — to invert the perceived stuffiness and rigorous decorum typically associated with classical music. In that sense, Nakahara says, it’s still an important opportunity for the group to signal that accessibility and openness remain an important part of its ethos.
“I think it’s more to do with the whole barrier and the people that feel either a sense of stigma or intimidation ... about the art form,” he explains. “Something I aim for, not just with Beethoven and Blue Jeans but in my work in general, is the maximum level of informality that’s appropriate in terms of interacting with the audience or presentation, and at the same time giving the actual performance and music-making the maximum level of discipline and attention.”
And that level of attention is apparent both in the performances that the Philharmonic produces for each Beethoven evening and the careful programming that Nakahara brings to the concert each year. Although the Fifth Symphony might seem like a must-play hit, the conductor notes that it’s been more than five years since the Philharmonic performed it in full.
He also always makes a point of presenting a living composer’s piece alongside Beethoven as part of the night. This year, it’s Jesse Montgomery, an “ascendant” composer according to Nakahara. The featured piece, Records from a Vanishing City, is a tone poem based on growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ’80s and ’90s, taking inspiration from Latin jazz, alternative rock, Western classical, avant-garde jazz, poetry and Caribbean dance music.
“It’s really about the whole notion of symphonic music as a living art form,” Nakahara says. “It’s also about that sense of daring and adventure, that sort of blazing spirit, that Beethoven had and is part of what keeps any art form alive.”
And, he also notes, Beethoven’s canon continues to be a well worth returning to.
“I think it’s impossible to make it routine if you are true to his vision of the music,” the conductor contends. “With great masterworks, part of what makes them great, I think, is that we can always discover something new. As performers, and as listeners, too, there are always new discoveries.”
What: South Carolina Philharmonic: Beethoven and Blue Jeans
Where: Koger Center for the Arts, 1051 Greene St.
When: Saturday, Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 12, 3 p.m.