Talking with oboist Jackie Leclair is like the proverbial breath of fresh air. The energy and enthusiasm she expresses about her work auger good things for contemporary classical music.
Leclair is in the enviable position of playing challenging and cutting-edge music, on the instrument she loves, with a group of like-minded musicians who are not only at the peak of their creativity but are also receiving great critical and audience recognition.
She is just back from New York City, where her chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound was one of three groups chosen to perform at the gala reopening of Alice Tully Hall on March 3. The famed concert hall in Lincoln Center had been closed three years for renovations. Alarm Will Sound was the youngest of the three groups to play; the others were composer Steve Reich’s ensemble and the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
For the reopening, Alarm Will Sound commissioned a piece by group member Caleb Burhans, a composer, singer and multi-instrument performer—“a Renaissance guy,” according to Leclair. Burhans typifies the new wave of classical musicians, whose interests and backgrounds also span rock, metal and electronica and who have no problem engaging in all instead of choosing just one area.
Leclair and other members of the group have even recorded for computer games, “a connection to classical music that might be surprising to some,” she said. (See www.nytimes.com)
Leclair is now back to her traditional academic life of teaching oboe in the College of Musical Arts, but soon she and the group will be off to the University of Pittsburgh and the Cleveland Art Museum. They are sharing their innovative style in workshops and master classes and performing across the country this year, from Duke University to the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The 20-member ensemble—in some ways more like a small orchestra, Leclair said—is devoted to playing a range of challenging music, from the very modern to the pop-influenced. “We blend sound and showmanship,” Leclair said. Alarm Will Sound is one of the first classical groups to play certain pieces from memory and to move about the stage, breaking the bounds of the traditional, seated crescent arrayed around the conductor.
Their 2008 Carnegie Hall concert was named one of the top classical performances of the year by New York Magazine. Their shows have been covered by the New York Times, which called them “the future of classical music”; the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the London Financial Times, which described their concerts as “equal parts exuberance, nonchalance and virtuosity.”
The group’s work has taken them as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, where their sold-out concert at the fabled Glinka Philharmonic Hall “had an intense vibe and almost a rock concert feel,” Leclair said. People crowded in and were standing and sitting in the aisles. “Remember, we’re talking about Europe and Russia, where everyone—even the guy selling hot dogs on the street—has a very strong opinion about opera and his country’s classical music tradition. That doesn’t happen here,” she said humorously.
This season, Alarm Will Sound is performing its groundbreaking multimedia piece “1969,” based on a planned meeting between the Beatles and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to develop a concert that they thought would change the face of music and the culture. Though the meeting was thwarted by a blizzard, the idealism of the moment is captured in Alarm Will Sound’s 90-minute performance piece, which brings together such political events, historical figures and social influences as the assassinations of 1968 that shook the nation, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, Stravinsky and Stockhausen.
“It’s a look at an incredibly turbulent but idealistic period,” Leclair said. “We use singing, speaking and movement. As performers, we’re doing things we didn’t study in conservatory, but we’re just as serious about it as when we’re performing in the strict classical style. Combining styles and disciplines allows us to perform in a transcendent, deep and satisfying way.”
Though the piece looks free-form, the musicians have thought out each detail of the performance, Leclair said. “Everything is choreographed. Every millisecond you’re onstage, you’re performing. Every movement is a genuine gesture to the audience and communicates the connection to them.”
Also in their repertoire is music by Aphex Twin, the renowned electronica composer, and a piece called A/rhythmia by Wolfgang Rheam, of “intense rhythmic complexity,” said Leclair. “You might not see the connections between the music of the 1300s and today’s electronica, but they’re there.”
Of the group’s eclectic choice of repertoire and blending of styles, she said, “We’ve all been musicians since we were little kids, so there’s a richness to our musical thinking.”
Even the organization of the group is nontraditional. Alarm Will Sound functions differently from most large ensembles in that there is no conductor. Two of the members, Alan Pierson and Gavin Chuck, are the artistic director and managing director, respectively, but each person has ownership and input into what to perform and the preparation of new pieces. The members prepare a big new project every year or so, dividing into committees to research and write. They employ a business manager and a fund-raiser but do everything else themselves.
“We have a lot of ownership and a lot of flexibility. This is exactly what the new-music world needs now,” Leclair said.
She first met the other group members when they were graduate students at the Eastman School of Music, her alma mater, and she had returned to teach master classes. Leclair had been living in New York, freelancing and playing concerts, and was interested in the experimental classical and electronic music composed by such artists as Conlon Nancarrow, John Adams and the techno group Autechre. Later, when Alarm Will Sound’s oboist left the group, she filled in and then joined the group officially. “It was a tremendous opportunity for me,” she recalls happily.
Noting that she is a bit older than the other members of the ensemble, she says that, unlike earlier generations that tried with limited success to incorporate new styles into older musical forms, members of Alarm Will Sound “cut their teeth on electronica and had easy access to making new music on the computer. Now they are Ph.D.s and have risen to the top of their profession, and they’re naturally cross-pollinating with other styles of music and taking a multigenre approach.
“The past, rather labored, attempts at ‘crossover’ (blending classical music and popular musics, world music and so on) that were never really convincing are being replaced with genuine and smart genre-blending that works. It’s attracted a lot of attention. So-called classical music now encompasses all sorts of styles that appeal to just about everyone.”