How an exciting new social phenomenon has the power to transform classical music.
A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire. Flash mobs are a recent social phenomenon. Some might say they go hand in hand with the fairly fatuous "planking" craze. Both have arisen from the ability to share something easily via technology - an act so seemingly random that it becomes entertainment.
From mass public pillow fights to "silent discos" (participants on the London Underground synced their portable music devices and silently danced for the unexpected viewing pleasure of bemused commuters), flash mobs have taken a variety of forms, but I would argue that they have an ability to serve a greater purpose. In particular I've taken an interest in the way classical music has been used in this context. It fits the bill perfectly; something that is widely perceived to belong in a concert hall, usually performed with a sense of formality to audiences who pay good money. Many people view classical music as a luxury. Taking it away from the revered theatres to the general public, free of charge and in a fun, surprising way is surely a good thing that's bound to attract some attention.
For us musos, there's the thrill of being "in on it". But interestingly, it's not just amateur musicians getting into this social movement, and it goes far beyond busking. Professional ensembles around the world have seen it not only as a bit of fun, but a way of reaching the masses in a modern, relevant way.
The most recent I've seen took place on May 2, 2011 at Copenhagen Central Station, where the Copenhagen Philharmonic (Sjællands Symfoniorkester) performed Ravel's Boléro to an unsuspecting (and largely delighted) audience.
Boléro is an ideal choice for a performance in this format, opening with a lone snare drum gradually joined by instruments one by one. It speaks to the spirit of spontaneity and community in a flash mob.
Check out a smaller group from the same orchestra entertaining commuters on the train:
I spoke with Nicolaj Møller Nielsen, a violist who took part in the Central Station stunt. He explained that while the whole thing appears quite random, it was actually carefully planned with the intention of raising awareness of the orchestra. It involved two big pickup trucks and a rehearsal to organise timings and determine who would walk in and when. The response? The event attracted a large audience of curious onlookers whose reactions were overwhelmingly positive. Plus, with over 66,000 views on YouTube, the orchestra has certainly raised awareness of classical music worldwide. Let’s hope some of those onlookers who may have never seen an orchestra before take that initiative to see what the experience would be like in a concert hall with proper acoustics.
So what's the most viewed flash mob on YouTube? An seemingly impromptu performance of the Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas in a suburban food court with over 33,000,000 views! This one is bound to bring a smile to your face.
The Spira Mirabilis ensemble performed Beethoven's Symphony No 2 outdoors in similar fashion in Florence back in 2007. What I love about this clip is the energy and sheer virtuosity of the musicians, not to mention they perform one of my favourite interpretations of this symphony without a conductor, standing up (even the cellos!) and from memory!
Taking classical music out of the concert hall is by no means a new concept. There are organisations popping up all over the world attempting to redefine classical music and shake off the stereotypical perceptions of it that turn young people away in particular. They may not have the same air of spontaneity as a flash mob but organisations such as Classic Jam (Melbourne) and Classical Revolution are opening chapters in cities from Sydney to New York in an effort to perform classical music at a high level in unusual venues such as bars and clubs.
If you want to take a look at more flash mobs (not just of the classical variety), I've made a playlist on YouTube that you can access via my channel.
So, classical music lovers, keep an ear to the ground; you never know if a Beethoven symphony might pop up as you turn a corner.
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Mathisha Panagoda is a cellist and founder of the Sydney Camerata. A passionate chamber and orchestral musician, he loves to travel, put on concerts and look for interesting opportunities to collaborate with like-minded people. His experiences are diverse and this blog seeks to reflect his journey as a traveling cellist, chamber musician and concert enthusiast.
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