Though the Barnes Foundation is rarely without music for very long, Philadelphia's legendary art collection is instituting three new series of concerts, aiming to elucidate the paintings and sculptures while exploring the concepts behind them — with full confidence that founder Albert C. Barnes would approve.
"He spoke about art in musical terms and music in visual terms," Martha Lucy, deputy director for education and public programs, said before Thursday's announcement that the Barnes will add 16 concerts to Philadelphia's classical music calendar. The Solo Series begins Jan. 27 with a concert titled "Fragments," featuring clarinetist Carol McGonnell. The Resounding Voices Choral Series begins Feb. 26 with Vigilia, an hour-long work by Einojuhani Rautavaara performed by the Philadelphia Voices.
Each of those two series will have six concerts alternating with one another.
Later this year, the Barnes Ensemble will be formed, appearing four times a year with as many as 80 players for intensive two-weeks-or-more workshops and performances, for exploration of complex modern works. Initial plans call for Michael Finnissy's microtonal orchestral work Red Earth to be heard in the surprisingly viable acoustics of the 7,800-square-foot Annenberg Court.
Conductor/composer Robert Whalen and soprano Katherine Skovira, a husband-and-wife team, are curating the concerts in conjunction with the museum's practice of juxtaposing art from different styles and periods while also filling niches in Philadelphia. Plans for each series aren't entirely set yet, but the Solo Series is veering toward the vast, wide-open experimental music also explored by Bowerbird. The opening concert of the Choral Series treads in territory similar to that of the
Katherine Skovira. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Crossing, which performs one-off concerts at the Barnes, though not music by the Finnish composer Rautavaara.
Works by Finnissy — part of what some people call "the new complexity" — might be explored by Orchestra 2001 were the rehearsal demands not so steep. With its ranks filled by postgraduate musicians, the Barnes Ensemble is designed to accommodate such impracticalities.
Lucy frankly admits the concerts aren't what she expected. "I always thought it would be nice to do music here ... but had no idea what that would be like," she said. "Then I met Robert and Katherine, and they got me all excited about what we could do with contemporary music." Part of the idea is to revive the confrontational modernity that Barnes (1872-1951) might have felt when first seeing his paintings.
Such programming sometimes requires imported specialists, such as pianist Marilyn Nonkin, whose May 18 program is titled "The Spectral Piano." "It's more money than we've spent on any other public programs," said Lucy, who declined to discuss figures. "It did take some convincing among my colleagues who hold the purse strings. But we're investing in something we believe is important. ... This is music of our time, and though not everybody loves it, people should be trying it out and thinking about it."
The concerts also promise to add "churn" to museum attendance on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Just as Longwood Gardens has events ranging from medieval music to an organ competition to bring in a non-horticulturist crowd, the Barnes Foundation is making its Choral Series, which will include the Philadelphia Girls Choir and the St. Thomas Gospel Choir, free of charge "to attract people who may be culturally engaged but not Barnes engaged," she said. (Other concerts will charge $30, with discounts for Barnes members).
The ideas began to hatch in 2015. Arriving at the Barnes purely as spectators, Skovira and Whalen (associate conductor of the Delaware County Symphony) encountered the Barnes "wall ensembles" — and the
Robert Whalen. Photo: Keitaro Harada.
unexpected synergy that comes with mixing art of different periods — and proposed ways to translate such ideas into music. Though it was hardly the first time musical proposals came Lucy's way — the Barnes has presented any number of one-off concerts and participated in commissioning projects — "this was the most comprehensive," she said.
Whalen and Skovira have extensive academic and performance backgrounds, including the University of Minnesota (where Whalen says new works were rehearsed for months at a time), the University of Chicago (where he worked with composer August Read Thomas), and the Lucerne Academy (where Skovira worked with new-music specialist Barbara Hannigan).
Both think long-term, continuing themes not just from one concert to another, but from one season to the next. Though their sense of mixture easily encompasses popular and esoteric art, they have an uncompromising streak. Don't expect tidy consistency in terms of size and shape of the pieces on any single program. Says Skovira, "We want to find the best possible program that provides a context that brings pieces to life."
For more information on the Barnes Foundation Concerts, call 215-278-7000 or go to www.barnesfoundation.org.