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At some point, orchestra directors got it into their heads that the way to attract younger audiences was to perform collaborative concerts with hip, youthful bands like Aerosmith, Scorpions, and Styx. Cut them some slack for being a bit behind; it’s the thought that counts. They may not save classical music, but classical-rock collaborations are by now a permanent fixture, providing a money-making niche for both symphonic pops programming and pop stars with symphonic pretentions. And it’s nice to see the trend expanding beyond the confines of dinosaur rock.
Composer/director Liza Figueroa Kravinsky has her own uniquely local spin on classical crossover with the Go-Go Symphony, which she founded last year. With 20 members, it’s more of an ensemble than full orchestra, so they rely on the Capital City Symphony to provide a string section—-given their focus, it’s no surprise they are heavier on brass and percussion. She says they’ve been well received so far by both classical and go-go crowds, though their biggest test will be this Friday, when they open for Trouble Funk.
In the longer term, much like The Roots, they’re hopeful calling themselves a symphonic orchestra will be a way to sneak go-go into venues in which it’s been banned for “security reasons.” Figueroa Kravinsky spoke with Arts Desk in preparation for tomorrow’s 9:30 Club show.
Washington City Paper: You grew up in the Filipino community in Prince George’s County. Was there much cultural sharing going on between black and Filipino kids that set the stage for the Go-Go Symphony?
Figueroa Kravinsky: I think there was more interaction because they all go to school with each other. In my case, it was just a musician thing. I’ve played with everyone from future scientists to prostitutes. When you’re a musician you don’t care who you play with, so people with all kinds of backgrounds get together and a lot of times we don’t even know what we do for a living.
In my case, after graduating from Oberlin, I joined a pop/R&B band with a friend of mine and we started playing go-go just because the manager asked us to. We were just going with the flow, it was the first time I’d played it. I didn’t understand it even when we were rehearsing, until I saw the crowd on the dance floor. Later I played with Trouble Funk and Pleasure, then for a band that Prince put together but never got released. After that I got discouraged, tried to get a real job, started a video production company. Then a few years ago I wanted to get back to doing music full time again. I know classical and I know go-go, and I know nobody’s mixed the two before.
WCP: How do you marry two genres, one of which is scored and the other improv, and make it work with an orchestra?
FK: My background was classical composition, that was always in the back of my head. And it made sense to me because you can put anything over a go-go beat. It’s a very valuable raw material and many people underestimate its potential. So I said let’s put classical over it, take more twists and turns the way classical can, and that’s where scoring comes in. When you do a music score, you can tell more complicated stories with the music, because the musicians know what’s coming. But the Go-Go Symphony does allow for improvisation, putting your own feel into it. And that’s something classical musicians used to do a long time ago. They used to improvise more than they do now, and I’m bringing that back in.
I have people who are go-go musicians. They’re not the greatest at sight reading—-they know how, but that’s not their specialty, they improvise. To the other extreme, there are classically trained musicians who feel very comfortable sight reading music but don’t feel comfortable improvising. In between are people with a jazz background, like our saxophone players, who are comfortable doing both.
WCP: Is your audience primarily classical or go-go?
FK: We’re just starting out, so our audience was whoever happened to be at the Clarendon Day Festival at the time. The people who’ve responded to us have been mixed. We performed at Thurgood Marshall Academy and the young kids loved us, especially when we got into the bounce beat. But they even liked the pocket beat, the original Chuck Brown beat with that “Mr. Magic” swing to it, which is supposed to be an anomaly for younger kids to be into. Usually there’s a generation gap, where people over 30 prefer the pocket beat. But we do both.
WCP: How do fusion orchestras like yours fit into the neverending conversation about the “Crisis of Classical Music?”
FK: I think the reason we’ve been talking about it for so long is we’ve still not found the answer to it. We hope the Go-Go Symphony is one approach. Not like when Chuck Brown played with the National Symphony Orchestra [in 2011], which was great but was a one-time thing. We want to do a true collaboration with original compositions, playing with genuine go-go percussionists rather than having a one-night-stand pops concert. Classical composers used to use dance music in their symphonies. Somewhere along the line, classical music lost touch with the popular world, and now they’re suffering the consequences. We’re trying to go back to the roots by reading popular culture. That might be an answer.
The Go-Go Symphony plays with Trouble Funk, Be’la Dona, and Sugar Bear 8 p.m. Friday at the 9:30 Club. $20.
photo: Joshua Cruse