Symphony on the Edge

Symphony's Preu wants to escort you to the Edge

14. Oct. 2004 – {img(ps04101.jpg)}With the Big Easy Concert House booming and a surge of beats bumping from the bar and all-ages circuit, the battle for an emerging Spokane hipster scene is officially on. So much so that now, even the Spokane Symphony - which would seem to register dangerously low on the 20- to 30-something Spokane hipster quotient - wants a piece.

"But we're so uncool," jokes Eckart Preu, the fresh-faced music director of the Spokane Symphony. "We're so not fun; we're so not entertainment. I mean, who wants to hang out with old people?"

The 35-year-old has only been music director since last month, but as much as anyone, the celebrated German-born conductor understands the perceptions that many young people have about the symphony. In fact, he's seen it just about everywhere he's been - whether in the lush cultural glow of New York City or in refined French arts scenes.

"Attracting young people - it has been a problem for a long time, for orchestras performing all across the world. In Spokane, at the Opera House, we seem to have this image of 'The Orchestra,' where we are all very stiff, and the people attending hang out and talk about 'the maestro' all day," Preu said. "People don't really want to deal with that."

So in the shadow of music marketing monoliths like MTV, or CMT, or even a spicy Super Bowl halftime show, American symphonies have struggled to consistently net new, youthful audiences. In fact, for many born after 1975, there's a good chance the last symphony they heard was the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as it backed Metallica on its double-live 1999 album "S&M."

Nonetheless, Preu isn't too concerned - the music played by the Spokane Symphony still makes a profound impression on any and all newcomers, he said.

"Usually, once people are there, they just love it. Getting them there is the problem."

So tonight, Preu and the Spokane Symphony hope to address that problem with "Symphony on the Edge," a rock concert-style performance at the Big Easy.

"Bringing them in is one thing, but going to them is another," Preu said. "So we're going to go where we haven't gone before: the dance club."

But the real challenge of the event, Preu said, was matching an edgy presentation of the Spokane Symphony - one complete with cascading rock concert lighting, a huge multi-media video board and a full service bar - with an equally progressive music program for the prior Spokane Symphony faithful.

"They are very interested in this as well, so it has to stand up to what 'on the edge' really means. It's hard, like trying to introduce someone to techno, or heavy metal, but not too much. So it starts with the usual stuff, the Beethoven and Vivaldi, but then we get into Adams and Ives. Stuff that we won't necessarily play in the Opera House - more off the beaten path," Preu said.

The key for universal appeal, Preu said, comes down to one thing. "In the beginning, there was rhythm. And today, I think that is the single most popular element of all contemporary music. I've listened to entire concerts where I couldn't hear anything but rhythm. I went to a Rage Against The Machine concert and had no idea what they were actually doing, but I understood their rhythm. It's not about the melody, or the harmony, it's about the rhythm. And all of these pieces are very, very rhythmic."

All in all, Preu said that tonight's concert has the entire symphony a little on edge. Which is exactly how he likes it.

"We have no idea how everything will sound in a rock concert hall, the program is really hard, and we'll be playing with the lights and the video screen, so nobody really knows what's going to happen. I love it."

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