Best of 2011: Memphis concerts expanded meaning of 'classical'

From left: Johnny Lee Davenport (Oberon) and Slade Kyle (Puck) perform in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Don Putnam

From left: Johnny Lee Davenport (Oberon) and Slade Kyle (Puck) perform in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Has the term "classical music" outlived its usefulness?

The image it evokes for many people doesn't do justice to the extraordinarily inventive and intriguing events being presented by players, conductors, composers and organizations.

It's true that the standard concert format is better than it has ever been in the Mid-South. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the IRIS Orchestra are doing some ambitious and beautiful work in the traditional concert-hall setting and performing the classical classics.

But 2011 saw some truly thrilling presentations and collaborations that shook up a lot of preconceptions.

My own favorite event was the momentous November night at the New Daisy when the Memphis Symphony's Opus One and Al Kapone put on a brilliant show blending classical and crunk. It was no gimmicky thang — the terrific arrangements by Sam Shoup kept the integrity of rapper Kapone's work while expanding them to embrace new orchestration.

Opus One, meanwhile, performed some adventurous new works, including a composition by local musician Jonathan Kirkscey, that were terrific in their own right. Players and audience had a splendid time, new collaborative ground was covered, and Opus One showed that it's ready to break a few rules in order to make some great music.

In February, the IRIS Orchestra served up a theatrical event integrating Michael Gandolfi's gorgeous "Themes from a Midsummer Night" with scenes from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Performers from Tennessee Shakespeare Company dominated the stage, but even the musicians got to participate in the theatrics.

This proved again that IRIS maestro Michael Stern has a knack for programming. He routinely puts together concerts with fascinating blends of works. But here he went further into performance, collaborating with Tennessee Shakespeare and providing a smart and riveting evening.

In a similar vein was January's remarkable presentation of another version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." This unique event featured singers from Opera Memphis performing with a "voicestra" — an all-vocal orchestra — combining voices of the a cappella groups DeltaCappella and RIVA.

The work was composed by Michael Ching, former artistic director of Opera Memphis, with a particularly fine appreciation of the story as well as the voice as instrument. This truly broke new ground in creativity and collaboration.

Another notable event was the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's International Conducting Competition in May — the first time the MSO has done something like this and a smart way to uncover top talent from around the world. There were 236 applicants from 35 countries and 30 states, of whom 10 were selected to lead the orchestra over two days.

The top three came back in October to conduct the MSO in a proper Masterworks concert, but the competition itself was an exciting way to see what these aspiring conductors could do in a limited amount of time. It was as heart-pounding as any competitive sports event and was marred only by the fact that too few people came to watch the baton throwdown.

The IRIS Orchestra started off its 2011-12 season in October with a wild session featuring actor Martin Short. The man who made über-nerd Ed Grimley famous did a version of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" that was both anarchic and entertaining. The improv master told the story while wooing string players, breaking maestro Stern's batons and wreaking havoc all over the stage at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre.

The "Wolf" romp made Short's performance in H.K. Gruber's surreal "Frankenstein!!" that came just before it seem marginally more restrained. He sang, narrated and recited a host of works in that work, which even Stern described as weird. But it was one provocative and unforgettable evening.

© 2011 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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