Imperial Symphony’s Season Goes from Brahms to Beat Box

Tom Thum on beat box

In its ongoing quest for a wider audience, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra is tweaking its formula a bit as the 2019-2020 season gets underway. In its choice of venue, its educational strategy and its programming, the orchestra’s leadership is trying different approaches.

As usual, the season will feature three concerts with classical programs, a holiday concert and its annual Night at the Opera. But in addition, there will be a genre-bending concert featuring a beat-box artist and a silent-movie-soundtrack concert.

On Tuesday, the orchestra gives its first concert of the season, with an appropriately Halloween-ish theme. The “Spooky Symphony” concert, at 7 p.m. in the Youkey Theatre in the RP Funding Center, has a pops feel to it, featuring a series of shorter works composed around suspenseful or supernatural narratives.

Two of the pieces were made famous in Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia”“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas and “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky. Also on the program is a suite from the musical “The Phantom of the Opera.” (Ticket information.)

Mark Thielen

Music director and conductor Mark Thielen said the lighter approach in this concert doesn’t mean the orchestra is giving up on heavier classics. “Our concerts this year will have works by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Elgar,” he said. “But I approach ‘Phantom of the Opera’ the same way as I do Brahms. It’s still music.”

The season’s highlights include a Valentine’s Day performance of works from the Romantic period, including Brahms’ Double Concerto, featuring ISO concertmaster Nina Kim on violin and guest cellist Edevaldo Mulla. (The romance extends to Kim and Mulla, who are engaged to be married.)

And on March 10, the orchestra will perform the Symphony in E minor (“Gaelic”) by Amy Beach. Now somewhat neglected, Beach (1867-1944) was noted in her lifetime as a pianist and composer, and the Gaelic Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony, was the first composed and published by an American woman.

In recent years the orchestra has been stepping into experimental crossover territory, performing works – and with artists – that blend classical and popular genres. That experiment continues on Nov. 15, when the orchestra will perform “Thum Prints,” with Australian beat-box artist Tom Thum. The piece was composed for Thum by Gordon Hamilton, artistic director of the vocal ensemble The Australian Voices. (For the uninitiated, beat-boxers use their voices to create a wide range of musical effects.)

The concert, at the Polk Theatre, will feature just 16 ISO musicians and Thum, who has won international beat-box competitions but has pursued a career performing in concert halls rather than dance clubs.

Tom Thum
Tom Thum

Imperial Symphony Executive Director Amy Wiggins conceded that it is “an envelope-pusher” but said the concert is “completely within our mission.”

Amy Wiggins
Amy Wiggins

“One of the things we know from our work with the school district is that kids are dropping out of music because they don’t feel it’s relevant to what they like. If we can find a way to connect with them, everyone wins,” she said. “The orchestra performs symphonic music, but that doesn’t mean it has to be Bach and Beethoven. I see this as an opportunity rather than a risk.”

Just for fun, the orchestra will conclude the season in April by performing a recreated musical score to accompany the 1920 film “The Mark of Zorro,” starring Douglas Fairbanks, which will be screened as the orchestra plays. The score was devised by Rick Benjamin, conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, who will conduct the Imperial Symphony.

In an attempt to offer music education to a wider circle of people this season, the orchestra is employing Thielen’s experience and gifts as an educator in two new initiatives.

A previous sneak-peek lecture series, Tea and Symphony, which was primarily for season subscribers and aficionados, has been scrapped, and a new program, the Listener’s Club, was launched in August. Thielen gives a lecture at 6 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the Lakeland Public Library on Lake Morton. The Listener’s Club lectures are more wide-ranging and take place whether there is a concert that month or not. Thielen said about 50 to 60 people have attended each lecture.

“We’re seeing a lot of new faces,” he said.

In the other new venture, Thielen will give short lectures beginning 45 minutes before the start of each concert this season, explaining to audiences what they will hear. Wiggins said Thielen has an engaging way of interacting with listeners.

“He’s having fun. Any time he gets to educate people about music, he shines,” she said.

The orchestra’s usual venue is the Youkey Theatre, but audiences of 800 can make the 2,300-seat theater seem dismayingly empty. Consequently, the orchestra has been making more use of the smaller Polk Theatre for some of its concerts in recent years, including three of this season’s six concerts. Wiggins said the Polk Theatre tends to attract a different audience.

“It’s such an intimate space for an audience our size. It was built for acoustic music,” she said. “It provides a little different experience in atmosphere and the energy the music is able to create.”

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