On the vanguard of musical progression, in the park



Outdoor series blends traditional with avant-garde

Lutz Rath knows why so many contemporary orchestras are failing — it’s because they refuse to perform contemporary music.

“Look at what you’re doing,” Rath has told some his fellow music directors. “You don’t attract anybody. You have to do something to generate the interest. And I say this because there is such a hunger for cutting edge programming — but you just have to be able to present it.”

Rath, the music director of the Washington Square Music Festival, doesn’t have that problem. In fact, he’s happily left the shackles of classical elitism in the dust. In the 53rd season of free concerts in Washington Square Park, the performers under Rath’s direction will present a diverse collection of works ranging from traditional to avant-garde to improvised — and he feels right at home on the vanguard of musical progression.

“I’m a lot less conservative than most,” Rath (who is originally from Germany) said, “and I’m always trying to push the envelope. So we are different than other orchestras. A totally different ballgame, a different mindset.”

That progressive ideology might seem to be an unusual element of the second oldest outdoor, free classical music series in New York — but Rath sees himself as just another link in a chain of musicians who have embraced the work of powerful, influential composers (a chain that’s very small — but rich in ideas).

Founded in 1953 by violinist Alexander Schneider and the Washington Square Association, the festival became a large part of Rath’s musical life when he joined the Festival Chamber Orchestra as a cellist in the early 70s — and solidified his artistic relationship with Henry Schuman (the festival’s music director at that time). Peggy Friedman, the festival’s executive director, remembers fondly the beginning of that fruitful connection.

“It was so important that Henry chose to hire Lutz as a cellist at that point,” recalls Friedman. “It was his first job in New York. I think Lutz always remained so incredibly loyal to the festival because of the fact that Henry gave him that first chance.”

It was fitting, then, that after Schuman’s death in 2001, Rath immediately took the reins as music director and worked to bring the festival even more closely in touch with the vibrant landscape of contemporary composition. To some, it would seem that a concert series that has spanned five decades and only employed two leading minds might suffer from stagnation or complacency — but that was not the case.

“Lutz is so familiar with wonderful new composers. If you’re doing fresh and unfamiliar things, you’re always going to have successes and failures,” said Friedman. “But what’s most important is that he is always creating. We feel like we’re still upholding a beautiful musical tradition, even as we continue marching on to new avenues.”

This year, the festival will begin on July 12 with the Festival Chamber Orchestra’s take on two classic works — Mozart’s one-act comic opera “The Impresario” and Schubert’s 5th Symphony. “The Impresario” will feature the Bronx Opera Company (led by its founder and artistic director Michael Spierman). The opera — which recounts the trials, tribulations and comic turns of an impresario, his assistant, a wealthy benefactor and his two quarreling soprano mistresses — will be performed entirely in English.

Asked why he chose to start an eclectic and modern series with a nod to the traditional, Rath acknowledged the value of introducing classical elements before stretching the musical boundaries. A variety of programming is necessary to attract a diverse audience because, Rath maintains, “It creates a lot of color, and it shows the whole spectrum.”

Along with funding from organizations including (among others) the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council for the Arts and The Washington Square Association, the festival has found support (both monetarily and vocally) from an unlikely source — City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

“Every year this festival brings our community closer together,” said Chin. “It is an occasion to listen to music, enjoy the arts and meet your neighbors. I am proud that visitors from all over New York City — and the world — come to the Village to take part in the festival and enjoy all that Lower Manhattan has to offer.”

Rath isn’t surprised that the festival continues to garner praise and contributions form such a wide range of audience members and musicians. After all, he’s just following his own advice.

“Everything I do is divided into two parts: something for your brain, and something for your heart. And my head is full of ideas,” Rath declared. “Some people don’t like 21st century compositions — they think we should still be playing only traditional classical music in the park. But I’m never going to give up my ideals for that. I want to attract people to these compositions, and, in the end, the music is only a means. It’s expression that I’m after.”

On July 19 — in a concert entitled “The Joy of Unfamiliar Music” — the Festival Chamber Orchestra will be accompanied by the marimbist Pius Cheung in performances of Emmanuel Séjourné’s Concerto for Marimba and Strings (2005) and, surprisingly, Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor. The performance will also include Luciano Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, Corrado Maria Saglietti’s Suite for Alto Trombone and String Quartet and Vincent Gambaro’s Three Quartets for flute, clarinet bassoon and horn.

“I’m so excited about doing a transcription of Bach for the marimba,” said Rath. “Bach really liked the idea that anything can be played on any instrument — and I think that he would’ve loved to see this.”

The concert on July 26 will again blend the traditional and the contemporary, including presentations of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Anton Arensky’s String Quartet op 35 in A minor and a piece by the modern Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla entitled “Four for Tango.” The show will feature Stanley Drucker, the former principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (who had held that position for 49 years until his retirement in 2009).

The 2011 series will close with a concert that is even more rare for a classical music festival — one that steps entirely outside the classical realm. The August 2 finale will feature The Charles Mingus Orchestra, a ten-piece ensemble performing a variety of tunes composed by the legendary jazz bassist after whom it is named.