Sometimes a clean slate has the most creative potential. That is certainly what the Brooklyn Philharmonic and new music director Alan Pierson seem to be discovering as they embark on their first full season together. Founded in 1857, the Brooklyn Philharmonic had flourished under forward-thinking artistic leadership, most recently Michael Christie and before him Robert Spano, before the economy forced the organization to cut back operations to education initiatives and a smattering of community concerts in early 2009. But this past January, the Philharmonic board appointed Pierson, known best for his work with vanguard new music groups Alarm Will Sound and Bang on a Can, to help resurrect the ensemble for the 2011-12 season. The result, driven by the mission to truly become “Brooklyn’s orchestra,” is a season of distinct concert series for three Brooklyn neighborhoods—Brighton Beach, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Downtown Brooklyn—all of which look to engage with the individual neighborhoods in unique ways. Premieres and multi-media offerings abound, as do partnerships with local organizations like the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and Brooklyn Public Library.
Perhaps the most intriguing new development is the Philharmonic’s season-long collaboration with actor, hip-hop luminary, and Brooklyn native Mos Def, which includes programs throughout the season featuring arrangements of Mos Def’s tunes arranged by New York-based composer and jazz musician Derek Bermel. The collaboration kicked off on October 8 with a short set at the Restoration Rocks Music Festival in Bedford-Stuvesant, Mos Def’s old stomping grounds. (See video from the festival and the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s set below. A clip from a rehearsal for that show can be seen here.) Two days before that concert, SymphonyNOW caught up with Pierson to hear about what brought him to the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and his vision for the ensemble’s future.
Ian VanderMeulen: You have a thriving new-music career already with Alarm Will Sound and Ban on a Can—why the Brooklyn Philharmonic?
Alan Pierson: There were two really exciting things about it: one was getting to move into more symphonic repertoire, which I love and which I wasn’t getting a chance to do in the creative path that I was on; and then the challenge of figuring out how to reimagine this orchestra. And the combination of the openness the organization had to that process and the incredible resources in Brooklyn—artistic and cultural—made it too compelling a possibility to pass up.
VanderMeulen: You’ve talked in previous interviews about really making Brooklyn Philharmonic the borough’s orchestra, really of Brooklyn. It seems like such a daunting task, Brooklyn being such a large borough geographically and so ethnically and culturally diverse. How do you see that playing out?
Pierson: Well, in a way it’s too soon to say. I can say how I would like it to play out. It is a really interesting challenge. And as you say, part of what makes it both challenging and also really exciting is the diversity of cultures and really the atomization of the borough, where there isn’t one Brooklyn, there’s all these different Brooklyns, and trying to figure out how to connect with many of them. It’s really challenging from a programmatic point of view. My hope is that as the Brooklyn Philharmonic builds up a reputation for doing these exciting things in really exciting ways, we end up both engaging very intensely with the individual neighborhoods where we’re performing—and I hope there will be more of those over time, there are three this year—but then also having an appeal that’s broader than that. So in designing these programs I’m looking in two directions at once. For the Brighton Beach concert, which is also centered around Russian cartoon music, that program is one thing to members of that community, and another thing to Brooklyn at large and people of Manhattan and Queens. I wanted it to work in both ways. So for people in Brighton Beach I hope it’s nostalgic, I hope that it’s music that they will know and connects with their roots and that resonates because it’s their music. But for people outside the community for whom it’s totally unfamiliar, I hope it’s also still really interesting. The music that Moshe Weinberg wrote for “Winnie the Pooh”—there was a big article in the New Yorker just a few weeks ago—is really great music, and the Shostakovich is really great music. And there’s a piece by [Vyacheslav] Artyomov that we’re doing for a movie called “Boy is Boy,” which is just gorgeous. It’s an interesting kind of cultural experience, and I hope a really satisfying musical one for people who aren’t Russian, aren’t in that community. It’s like making a kids’ movie that’s also meant to be enjoyed by adults—you create something which can be appreciated from many different points of view.
VanderMeulen: How did the collaboration with Mos Def come about and what are you anticipating about that?
Pierson: That started, like all the programs this year, in conversations with people in the community we’re collaborating with. So we were talking with the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation and had a very open-ended conversation with them a year ago about what could an orchestra bring to Bed-Stuy that would really resonate and be meaningful for them. And they started talking about the various musical traditions that come out of Bed-Stuy, artists who’ve had a great deal of influence who’ve come out of there, and Mos Def was one of the names on the list. He piqued my interest, so I had a follow-up conversation with Derek Bermel, a composer who I’ve worked with a bunch of times now and who knows that repertoire really well, who is really deeply connected with hip-hop music. And he was really excited about working with Mos Def. So I said, “Great, let’s see what we can do with it.” So Derek and Mos and I met probably about six months ago and had a really great conversation about what we could do together. He’s really eclectic and really smart, knows a huge amount of music and has a lot of creative ideas, so he’s a natural kind of guy for an orchestra to collaborate with. And so many of his songs, especially on his most recent album, are so interesting sonically, they’ve really invited an orchestral reimagining. But this is really just the beginning of it. Derek did these pieces for the Saturday show for a small ensemble as first steps toward what we’ll eventually do in June.
VanderMeulen: It’s interesting to hear you say that one of the attractions was an opportunity to do more standard orchestral repertoire. You have a certain reputation as a new-music person and you’re talking about reimagining the Brooklyn Philharmonic. But from an institutional point of view, with a name like Brooklyn Philharmonic it seems there would still be a certain expectation of doing older, great repertoire. Is it going to be a challenge to keep a balance of old and new?
Pierson: I think especially in these early days of the reboot of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, it’s really important that everything we do be focused on a mission. We’re developing a new identity, we’re developing a new mission. In my own thinking about programming, I’m trying to stay really focused on that identity and that mission, as with Alarm Will Sound, which has a very different mission. In programming for Alarm Will Sound, one of the questions we always ask is, “Why is Alarm Will Sound doing this? What does this piece say about Alarm Will Sound and why is it important?” And you know, for every show we do we want that to be clear for the audience. And that was more true at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound than it is now and it’s true of the Brooklyn Phil reboot. It’s important to me that everything we do have a clear purpose. And so the challenge is a conceptual challenge. I would love to do Brahms—I haven’t gotten to do Brahms in years. But you know, why is Brooklyn Philharmonic coming to Bed-Stuy and doing Brahms, or coming to Brighton Beach and doing Brahms? How does this fit into the story we’re trying to tell and the mission we’re embarking on?
So the challenge for me is to find ways to think about the standard repertoire in those contexts. This is kind of a creative limitation I put on myself and I think it’s a useful one and an important one for the organization. So this year we’re doing Beethoven Three, which was played on the very first Brooklyn Philharmonic concert. We’re using it as a way to shine a spotlight on the new mission because in every neighborhood we’re going into we’re doing a movement of Beethoven Three in a way that speaks to the nature of that community. In Brighton Beach there’s a Russian cartoon that was made to the first movement of the symphony, and we’re playing that movement with the cartoon. And in Bed-Stuy we’re organizing a remix competition for people from the community to remix the finale from Beethoven Three, and we’ll play the finale and also play an arrangement of the winning music. Beethoven Three becomes a part of us telling the story of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I think down the road this will be less important, and we’ll do Mahler Second because we want to do Mahler Second. But for the moment, while we’re just getting this thing going and trying to establish the story, I’m being really strict with myself with regards to the organization and being sure that when we play repertoire, that the repertoire is there for a reason and that reason has to be with who we are and who we’re trying to become.
Photo of Alan Pierson by Michael Rubenstein/Redux Pictures. Photo of Mos Def backstage at Restoration Rocks by Joe Tomcho.