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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Reinventing classical music: These six ensembles are breaking boundaries in Madison
Black Marigold. For more photos, click gallery, above.

These days, Madison's classical music scene is a movable feast that travels from bars to coffeeshops to traditional venues. Its new look is more casual, its sound more American, and its mission more humanitarian. Boundaries between genres have crumbled, and audiences like it.

Here are snapshots of six local groups that put a new spin on the time-honored art form.

Black Marigold

Black Marigold, or BMW5, have a fresh sound and play with uncanny precision due in part to a unique chemistry.

"Once we got together, the ensemble took on a life of its own," says flutist Elizabeth Marshall. "For me, it happened within our first few notes. I was absolutely shocked by how natural it was to play together."

Black Marigold plucked their name from nature. Horn player Kia Karlen says the quintet started by looking up flowers with five petals, one for each member.

"We added the 'black' to 'marigold' to make it sound less precious and girly," she says.

Despite the focus on intra-group relations, the audience always comes first at concerts.

"I think audiences want to connect to the music emotionally and also find rapport with the musicians," says bassoonist Cindy Cameron-Fix. "We facilitate that by choosing a balanced program and reaching out with our spoken introductions."

But the big draws are the ensemble's passion for performing and innovative programming. At a BMW5 concert, you might hear works by current American composers like Jenni Brandon, Brian DuFord and Bill Douglas, or an intriguing, unfamiliar woodwind piece.

"There is a lot of good music out there waiting to be performed," says oboist Laura Medisky. "Sometimes you have to go out and look for it, but it's worth it."


Graminy. What does that mean? It derives from the botanical name for the grass family: Gramineae. The group performs "class-grass," a fusion of classical and grassroots music.

The players are an eclectic lot. Shauncey Ali is a champion fiddler with a degree in botany. Michael Bell plays mandolin and is a professor of community and environmental sociology at the UW. Mary Gaines, Chris Wagoner and Chris Powers host shows on WORT-FM.

The group began at an Earth Day celebration in 2010. Bell organized a concert of new compositions, including one of his own, at Overture Center.

"Most of my classical compositions to that point had drawn inspiration from grassroots traditions, like bluegrass, klezmer, Celtic and Native American," he says.

But this time Bell wanted to put these traditions on an even plane. This meant finding musicians who could play both types of music. That was no easy task.

"Grassroots players use a lot of skills and techniques that classical training doesn't normally include, like improvisation," he says. "Classical players, on the other hand, have the music-reading skills that allow a composer to write something with more complex textures, harmonies and arrangements."

Ali said he knew just the folks who could play it all, and the group soon came together. Class merged with grass.

Bell explains "class-grass" in more detail: "We use classical forms in most of our compositions, like theme-and-development and lots of key changes."

The group's newest album, Germinations: A Bluegrass Symphony in D, has nine movements. The players use a device consciously borrowed from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Bell describes it as "an interlude theme that connects the movements but appears in a different guise and setting each time."

My favorite Graminy work is Bell's "Water Grass Place," a piece with wide-ranging cultural and musical influences. It takes me out of the concert hall and back to the land.

Clocks in Motion

The UW's Clocks in Motion are a contemporary percussion ensemble that started when Sean Kleve began his DMA studies in 2010. Today there are seven other percussionists and a pianist as well.

At concerts, gongs, marimbas, chimes, drums and cymbals clutter the stage in a logic only Clocks understand. With a blur of mallets and drumsticks, they unleash contemporary music that has been quarantined in music libraries for decades.

The group plays devilishly difficult music, so it's not surprising that Iannis Xenakis' "Pleiades" has become their calling card. Clocks built a special instrument to play this challenging piece. Called a sixxen, it's a 19-pitched, keyboard-like instrument that's made from blocks of aluminum and tuned microtonally. The performers also wear earphones with part-specific tracks to maintain an accurate tempo throughout the piece.

Clocks have performed "Pleiades" at universities across the country, and it has come to represent their fearless approach to complex repertoire.

Sound Ensemble Wisconsin

Founded in the fall of 2011, Sound Ensemble Wisconsin is a chamber group that uses theme-based programming. This season's theme, "American Patterns," has a 20th-century orientation because American composers were prominent then.

SEW's final concert of the 2012-13 season featured works by American composer Joan Tower and European composers Milhaud, Ravel and Stravinsky, who were all influenced by American music. The performance ended with Gypsy jazz from Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble.

Founder and director Mary Theodore plays violin and does the programming. She says Sound Ensemble Wisconsin was founded on the premise that "music should serve everyone."

Last December, SEW's Chamber Music Marathon raised money for two educational programs, Comprehensive Musicianship Through Performance and Community GroundWorks' Youth Grow Local. This month, the group commemorated the American Patterns theme by auctioning off a quilt to raise money for future events. Audience members donated squares, and volunteers at Stitcher's Crossing assembled them.

Theodore also notes how Sound Ensemble Wisconsin has benefited audiences.

"Our unique programming…has encouraged them to seek out aspects of the music they may not have otherwise," she says. "I would define that as success."

Classical Revolution Madison

Classical Revolution Madison present a wide array of musical genres, from Baroque to electroacoustic. Since their first concert at the Mercury Cafe in 2011, the 40-member group have cultivated an avid following. CRM perform regularly at Fair Trade Coffeehouse and Brocach Irish Pub.

Playing in these settings can be a challenge due to the noise and movement coming from the crowd. Yet somehow these elements can create a sense of calm. Perhaps that's why Romantic composer Robert Schumann would go to a bar, find a quiet corner and drink a cold one after a long day of writing music.

Kathy Esposito, public relations manager for the UW School of Music, likes to listen at Brocach for a different reason: Her son, Alex Norris, played violin in Classical Revolution Madison during its first year.

"I love classical music, and I love a good beer, so I love listening to Classical Revolution," she says. "There's something relaxing about hearing it in that setting. The music is reasonably loud, but it's not too loud, and there's no rule against talking."

You could even play with CRM: Some events are designed so additional musicians can drop in and sight-read.

New Muse

New Muse caused quite a stir when conductor Jerry Hui led hundreds of protesters in a performance of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" at the state Capitol in 2011. That's just what this group like to do: cultivate spontaneity, flash-mob-style.

These performers shake things up in other ways, too. They use an interdisciplinary approach that combines music, theater, visual art and dance. And their repertoire is eclectic, with a focus on modern compositions from around the world. The group have recently performed Eugene Novotney's "A Minute of News," a thorny piece for solo snare drum, and Ian Clarke's "Zoom Tube," a piece for solo flute that highlights jet whistles and other contemporary playing techniques.

Last year's Madison Muse Fest is another example of the group's inventive spirit. It transformed State Street businesses into multi-arts performance venues with hot-off-the-press contemporary works and multi-disciplinary music installations.

"The fest was very successful," says New Muse pianist Paola Savvidou. "I'm hoping it promotes new music in unconventional locations and will be repeated in the future."

This approach to performance is paying off: The city has funneled $25,000 into Make Music Madison, which will feature live music in nontraditional venues throughout town on June 21.

New directions for a time-honored art form

None of these groups existed when I wrote about small, local classical ensembles in 2008. And they are only a few of those that are changing Madison's cultural landscape. The audience for classical music is expanding as a result, and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra could benefit.

On the UW campus, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is getting into the boundary-crossing spirit with programs that bring together musicians and scientists. Last weekend, music professors Daniel Grabois and Mark Hetzler partnered with colleagues from the engineering, computer science and psychology departments for a program on sound, electricity and robotics.

Perhaps classical music has found its niche for the 21st century.

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