Artist Spotlight: Ensemble HD

By Patrick Burke on February 6, 2016
Ensemble HD

Beethoven for Beer

In 2012, Joshua Smith decided to try something different. While sitting in a bar on the West Side of town, the Principal Flutist for the Cleveland Orchestra struck up a conversation with a local proprietor. From there, the two worked out a plan to take some of the best classical musicians in the world and bring them to The Happy Dog, a bar most known for its blue collar clientele and a steady stream of local indie bands.

After a number of performances, spotlights from BBC News and Performance Today, and a live record (Yes, they released a vinyl record!) Ensemble HD takes to the road this season with a performance at the American Philosophical Society on Sunday, February 21, at 4pm. To get in the spirit, we will be pairing their concert, entitled Cabaret: Between Two World Wars, with a beer tasting from 2nd Story Brewing.

I had a chance to catch up with Joshua last week, and we talked about Ensemble HD's upcoming performance, the origins of the group, and what it's like taking the show on the road.

Patrick Burke: We touch on this last year, but would you mind giving our audience a refresher on who and what Ensemble HD is?

Joshua Smith: The Happy Dog is a tavern in Cleveland’s vital Gordon Square Arts District. Great beer list, $6 hot dogs with a checklist of multiple dog topping possibilities and perfect tater tots. It also has a stage and a proprietor, Sean Watterson, who presents indie and polka bands (and lectures, book-signings, and panel discussions) almost every night. Ensemble HD was born when I rounded up some of my colleagues from The Cleveland Orchestra, and Christina Dahl, a long-time pianist partner of mine, and went to play chamber music on that stage for the first time. The six of us are trying to reach people with “classical" music in non-traditional ways.

PB: Could you describe what it is like performing in Severance Hall one night, and a bar the next? On the other side of the stage, how is the audience reaction and interaction differ between the two venues?

JS:  First, there’s no match for what can happen in either place. A meditative, intimate experience can happen at Severance, and an unbuttoned, social experience can happen at Happy Dog. The differences between these approaches are the reason to do this: "High Art" gets put into the middle of a place where people would least expect to have it, and when people can stand so close to us that they can feel us interacting with each other, the value judgements about those differences can go away. I think people enjoy themselves at both places, but it’s definitely fun, as a classical musician, to be cheered at like a rock star. And it’s a big challenge to communicate with an audience that could also, at the same time, choose to watch the game above the bar.

PB: Your program for PCMS on February 21 is titled Cabaret: Between Two World Wars. How did the Ensemble come to this theme and why did you choose these specific works?

JS: When we started to get invitations to appear at chamber music venues like this one, I wanted at least to play with the idea of conjuring the tavern concept of Happy Dog. The word “cabaret” helped me to lean in that direction, but also pointed me to a time period, roughly 1910-40, that is rich not only with historical context but also with fantastic chamber music. The pieces are from an era in which all of the creative arts reflected and reacted to the world’s turbulent events, in some cases inventing absolutely new ways of expression. Janáček and Kodály looked to their Eastern European folk music roots to express specific national identities. Reger and Debussy were inspired by Baroque music— albeit in totally different ways— to explore both tradition and change. Holst and Britten, both English composers, reflected their differing generations with pieces that go from the former’s nostalgia for a lost idyll to the latter’s demand for peace. Varèse celebrated the new capabilities of the Machine Age as he celebrated the very first platinum flute. And Berg used atonality in such a gorgeously personal way that I think he was like the poster-boy for this era that bridges the 19th into 20th centuries.

PB: The Ensemble released a live recording in 2013. Do you plan on recording this new program and what’s next for the group?

JS: No specific plans yet, other than hopefully sticking together and exploring new possibilities. I do think (with a wink) that this program concept could make a good record.

PB: You’ve spent your fair share of time in Philadelphia. Do you think there is an equivalent to The Happy Dog here?

JS: Well, I think it would be fun to play some Beethoven for beer at Monk’s Cafe.

For more information on Ensemble HD, check out their website here.