As ticket sales dwindle across the country, classical establishments are trying to incorporate alternative genres into their programs in an attempt to reach out to new audiences. With the Hollywood Bowl as an accessible backdrop, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is leading the trend: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Gnarls Barkley, and Devendra Banhart are all slated to perform with them this summer.
It’s an intriguing combination, and one that is turning out to be successful. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic have sky-high ticket prices, a dress code, and a very specific (if unspoken) audience etiquette. At the other end of the spectrum, you have these raucous traveling gypsies, who play where they can and perform in the midst of glorious licentiousness. Their audiences tend to stand the whole time and have a reputation for smoking, drinking, and cussing uninhibitedly. But now these groundlings are being lured into unfamiliar territory with cushioned seating and fancy playbills.
As part of this strange new trend — and following in the footsteps of Bright Eyes and the Decemberists before them — folk-inflected indie rockers Grizzly Bear performed with the LA Philharmonic at the Philharmonic’s invitation. But instead of the orchestra serving as the band’s backing, as might be expected, they opened for the group. And while the two did not actually perform together, the Philharmonic’s classical selections helped preface the ambient tones that Grizzly Bear are known for. Touching on the similarities shared by the two disparate ensembles, Grizzly Bear guitarist Daniel Rossen explained: “It seemed like it was appropriate, because our records have a certain orchestral sweep to them…the director of the Phil listened to our records and we sort of talked about — not pieces that inspired us, but things that we’ve liked and pieces we didn’t know but sounded interesting, like it would fit the mood of what we do.”
The mood of Grizzly Bear is one of experimentation and exploration that focuses on the importance of how music “reads” and “feels.” Their sweeping layers of woodwinds, electronics, and immaculate vocals create a hauntingly beautiful effect that began with their debut album Horn of Plenty. It’s a sound they perfected on the follow-up, Yellow House, which was hailed by many as one of the best albums of 2006. What began with Ed Droste has now evolved into a fully-fledged band, with Christopher Bear on drums, Chris Taylor on bass, woodwinds, and electronics, and Rossen contributing guitar and vocals. Their music is fragile and moving, and, when placed inside the grand confines of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, their melodies soared.
For the first portion, the adorable Joana Carneiro conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic though “Ritirata notturna di Madrid” by Luigi Boccherini, “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten, and closed with Stravinsky’s “Suite (1919)” from The Firebird, all of which mirrored Grizzly Bear’s performance in provocative ways. Each piece created something larger than life with long swells of dissonance and chilling lines that swirled around the auditorium. With the audience composed almost entirely of Hollywood “indie” types who were more likely drawn to this classical institution for Grizzly Bear than for Luigi Boccherini, the classical segment’s effect was unusually immediate.
Stravinsky’s “Suite (1919)” invoked the most vocal audience reaction. Going against “proper” classical etiquette, one concert patron screamed “Fuck yeah!” in between movements. And in this enormous and marvelously erected venue, those two little words reached every seat. The man’s expletive received some laughs, but the music was demanding, emotional, and, notwithstanding his inelegant shout, eloquent. Following this outburst, during another dramatic pause, the audience began cheering loudly. And as Carneiro crouched down to cue in the lower strings, she turned to the roaring audience and gave a small nod, as if to say: “I couldn’t agree more. We rock.”
The Phil’s thrilling performance injected excitement into the air, and the closing Stravinsky number set the scene perfectly for Grizzly Bear. The band stepped onto the large and intimidating stage armed with their mosaic of instruments, and from the first notes of the opening selection, “Easier”, it was obvious that these musicians were born for live performance. With a set list that included “Knife”, “Marla”, “Deep Blue Sea”, “Alligator”, and their latest track, “While You Wait for the Others”, they commanded the stage from beginning to end.
Witnessing these four mini-orchestras at work was enchanting. Each member alternated instruments, juggled several different sounds, and still managed to harmonize perfectly. For Droste’s vocals, the vastness of the concert hall seemed insignificant. His voice dripped with innocence and ascended through to the back row of the highest tier. Visually, the most entertaining was Taylor, who fluctuated abruptly from crouching low to record a flute melody, to jerking upright so he could load loops with his clarinet. In later tracks, he added in the accordion and his trusty bass, and even created a cat-in-heat-like vocal wail for the song “Knife”. Standing on tiptoes, mouth impossibly wide open, he surged into the microphone and then poignantly faded away.
With their perfect harmonies, soaring voices, and sweeping melodies, it almost seemed as though the cavernous concert hall was too small for them. At one point a fan screamed out “I love you”; he spoke for us all. As with the reaction during Stravinsky, it was difficult to be consumed by music this moving and not scream out adorations. After all, each of these men is an orchestra in his own right. The most distinguished of philharmonics would be lucky to share the same stage with Grizzly Bear.