Fail Better: Arcana New Music Ensemble continues a Philly legacy of daring contemporary music

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Elizabeth Huston, Eric Derr and Andy Thierauf of Arcana Ensemble performing Moondog's "Marimba Mondo" at the Rotunda | photo courtesy of Bowerbird Promotions
Elizabeth Huston, Eric Derr and Andy Thierauf of Arcana Ensemble performing Moondog’s
“Marimba Mondo” at the Rotunda | photo courtesy of Bowerbird Promotions

Shortly before the finale of last Friday’s debut concert by the Arcana New Music Ensemble at the Rotunda, the group’s ten members were joined by an unexpected guest: a lightning bug flitted across the stage, blinking on and off in time with “Theme,” a piece of accumulating intensity written by Louis Thomas Hardin, Jr. – better known as Moondog. The firefly traced meandering curlicues that seemed to echo the outsider composer’s eccentric thought processes.

That late appearance was only the latest piece of synchronicity involved in bringing the Arcana New Music Ensemble to life. The project was launched under the auspices of Bowerbird, the long-running experimental and contemporary classical presenting organization, and is being spearheaded by Bowerbird founder/director Dustin Hurt in collaboration with harpist Elizabeth Huston and Curtis professor Thomas Patteson.

Arcana New Music Ensemble’s latest performance is by legendary composer Morton Feldman | photo via Bowerbird

The ensemble, which will draw from a pool of forward-thinking Philly musicians depending on the needs of each concert, will return with its second performance this Saturday, presenting legendary composer Morton Feldman’s “Samuel Beckett, Words and Music” in collaboration with Pig Iron Theatre Company at the Fleisher Art Memorial.

“We intentionally decided to launch the ensemble with two concerts rather than one,” Hurt said. “We wanted to create bookends for the artistic spectrum that the ensemble will cover. It felt really strong to say from the launch that this thing is going to be wide, but wide in the way that Bowerbird is wide, which has always been hard for me to explain. So we’re interested in paying equally serious attention to Feldman, this accepted genius of post-modern composition, but also in music that’s outside the traditional canon but also kind of fun.”

Bowerbird presents The Music of Moondog | Bird’s Lament from Bob Sweeney on Vimeo.

The idea of playing new or commissioned music by living composers remains an open question, though Hurt predicts a balance between new compositions and obscure repertoire. “There’s a lot of great music that already exists but is never heard,” he said. One thing that he insists won’t happen is for Arcana to become the latest example of the trend for hipster chamber ensembles. “We’re not interested in that whole Brooklyn indie classical thing – groups that play rock music with a chamber ensemble.”

While the ensemble’s name suggests a sense of the mysterious and cryptic that can certainly be found in much of the kind of music that they’ll be performing, Hurt explained that it was inspired by a more specific reference. “Arcana” was the name of a piece by early 20th-century composer Edgard Varése that was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927, under the baton of the typically more conservative Leopold Stokowski.

“I always found it fascinating that one of the earliest avant-garde composers, who wrote music that was extraordinarily unique music both in his time and still now, was championed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski,” Hurt said. “It seems like there’s kind of an unfulfilled legacy as far as Philadelphia being an amazing city for contemporary music.”

Bowerbird presents The Music of Moondog | “Theme” from Bob Sweeney on Vimeo.

Hurt was quick to acknowledge the work of the city’s long-running new-music ensembles, citing the legacy of organizations like Orchestra 2001, Network for New Music, and the PRISM Quartet; he served briefly as executive director for the venerable Relâche. “I have a lot of respect for those ensembles,” he said. “I just think it’s interesting and notable that all of themstarted in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It seems like it’s time for something new to start, not to replace what they’re doing but to add to it and stir the pot a little bit.”

Trumpeter Tessa Ellis performs with Arcana New Music Ensemble | photo courtesy of Bowerbird
Trumpeter Tessa Ellis performs with Arcana New Music Ensemble | photo courtesy of Bowerbird

Building on Bowerbird’s model of constant activity – in its earliest days, Hurt regularly presented multiple concerts in a single week – hopes are that Arcana will be able to perform at least a half-dozen concerts a year. Musicians span the spectrum from recent grads and current students at Curtis and Temple to more established artists, some of whom are connected with ensembles like Network for New Music and the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra.

Arcana is doubtless an ambitious undertaking, but Hurt takes a cue from Samuel Beckett. He’s been reading the playwright’s work in conjunction with Saturday’s presentation of Feldman’s piece, which sets the text of a 1961 Beckett radio play to music. During that reading, Hurt drew inspiration for the daunting endeavor from the playwright’s oft-repeated quote: “Fail better.”

“We’re focused on doing blockbusters, concerts that will really get people excited and draw large crowds. I think there’s a lot of space to do a lot of stuff.”

Arcana New Music Ensemble performs Morton Feldman’s Samuel Beckett, Words and Music at The Fleisher Art Memorial on Saturday, June 25th. Tickets and more information can be found at the Bowerbird website.

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