New York-based ensemble/collective The Declassified had quite an interesting week—they were launched as an official group with several days of concerts, they raised lots of money from an online campaign to aide their launching, and were featured in a New York Times article. They are by no means a brand new ensemble that got together overnight, as they are all alumni of The Academy – A Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute (www.acjw.org) that had been working together for several years in similar circumstances and decided to have a new official group with many great initiatives!
Cellist Claire Bryant had time to explain the origins of the group. “The Declassified has been in the works for a long time now. There are about 20 fellows in The Academy during a two-year period. From 2007 to 2008, I was in the first group of fellows during the pilot phase of the program. As we all finished our tenure at The Academy, we found ourselves still wanting to work together, play together, doing these kinds of community and university-type residencies. This is what sparked the creation of my own residency series in my native South Carolina called Claire Bryant and Friends. Now there are 46 alumni, and just recently, we launched this endeavor, The Declassified. Both Claire Bryant and Friends and The Declassified spawned from the same general communal passion to continue Academy style endeavors, which fuses chamber music, community engagement, and educational-based work — really striving to deeply connect broad communities, societies, and cultures with classical music in our modern age”.
“We’ve been doing residencies as alumni of The Academy under the banner of Ensemble ACJW for the past 2 years, and now Carnegie Hall has agreed to hire The Declassified as its own entity. The Declassified’s membership is organic and strong, as we’ve all been through the same experiences and have received the same specialized training during our time in The Academy”.
Bassoonist Brad Balliett gives his perspective:
‘The Declassified have banded together to re-imagine the roles of both classical musicians and classical music in society, with the idea that this art can be engaging, revelatory, and inspiring to any audience when presented in the right way. Our day-to-day activities include chamber music concerts, creative projects in the community (composition, chamber music, or songwriting workshops), and residencies at domestic and international festivals and universities. We place a high priority on interactivity and audience engagement with the hopes that every performance can open a portal to a new way of thinking about music.”.
So, why the name “The Declassified”? A play on the term “classical”, or are the musicians themselves declassified once they’ve graduated from The Academy?
“We went through a very long name-vetting process”, explains Bryant. “There was a call for name submissions from the entire 46, and we ended up having a spread-sheet with over 230 names on it for our ensemble to vet the perfect name from. Naming a band is the hardest thing to do. But we decided we wanted a name that was a little edgy – we decided we didn’t want to go ‘The such-and-such ensemble’ route. In fact, our group is not really an ensemble, in the old sense of the word. We’re a new type collective or chamber music society – I guess you could say we are unclassifiable! From there, the name “The Declassified” made the cut of a short list, and we rallied behind it because we felt like our mission is that of demystifying classical music, to reveal the inner secrets of classical music with the general public. There was a nice quote about it in the New York Times article that one of the artistic directors said, but it also plays on the word ‘classical’, and I think it’s just a fun yet bold name that speaks to what we aim to do through music”.
The Declassified’s launch campaign promo
“The fundraising drive is to get us up and running. We set our goal at $20,000, which would cover costs of launch week and other startup costs. Every single member of the D/C who participated in the launch week, gave their time for free. We’ve done everything on our own up until this point – very grassroots-style. We did hire a talented graphic designer to do logos, and we got some fantastic press shots donated by Matt Dine. We surpassed our goal with weeks left to go in the campaign, which was so incredible, and we are so grateful. But we are quickly realizing all of the things it takes to truly launch a new group successfully – web site design, perhaps hiring an operational or administrative staff person, setting up a permanent home in NYC for an office and rehearsal space, establishing a New York residency, the list goes on and on. So, we hope with two weeks left, we can really make a push to give us extra legs to put up an “open-for-business” sign, so to speak”.
The Declassified has been very active and continues to get offers. Claire continues: “We’ve had a lot of interest, especially since the success of the launch week and the NY Times profile piece written by Daniel Wakin. We’ve had several calls from people around the country inquiring about the possibility of having us to do a residency in their community or at their festival, so things are really brewing right now. As far as New York, we’ve had 9 shows in 6 days, and they all went very well, and the cool thing is they were all in different types of venues”.
Bryant recalls a specific event where she decided to put herself on the other side of the performance. “One of my favorite shows of launch week was at The Greenwich House Music School, where we were really able to use the space for the program–it wasn’t just ‘sit down in your seat and watch the concert’. When people arrived, there was an ongoing reception happening, and the Dvorak Wind Serenade was being performed in the parlor. There were no organized seats facing the group, and at one point the performers invited the audience to even take a seat inside the performance on the floor. I took advantage of the invitation myself, and I have to say it was pretty amazing to experience the piece as an audience member sitting in the center of the ensemble–talk about ‘getting inside of the music’! People drank wine, and were encouraged to hear Dvorak from different perspectives. Later in the evening we had a ‘Battle Royale’ between subsets formed from within the group that competed against one another using one-minute compositions composed by professional composers and composition students from the University of South Carolina. During this ‘battle of the bands’ members of the audience were asked to judge the performances based on the ensemble’s passion, panache, poise, and pitch. The event concluded with a very special performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, in a typical concert hall setting. It was a super fun evening and an engaging experience for all”.
The group’s objective appears to be successful. “This eclectic and somewhat new type of concert gave The Declassified the opportunity to really show off the range of things that we do, while also breaking down the usual barriers and expectations of what people consider to be a classical music concert experience. We really are trying to change that and declassify those traditions. We also did a bar show at Rockwood Music Hall during launch week where we played Bach ‘Riceacre a 6’ from The Musical Offering, segueing directly into the Stravinsky Septet without a break. Following the Stravinsky was a trio for clarinet, horn, and bassoon by Korean composer Isang Yun. This first half of the program was presented as a journey through the evolution of composition. Going from the Bach straight into the Stravinsky was so smooth–one could almost hear the Stravinsky as part of the Bach. During the second half, we played the entire Beethoven’s Septet, which was great to do in a bar because it’s like a big party–one of the greatest hits from 1799! We even held a drinking game with the audience during the Scherzo, which was hilarious and appropriate for both the music and the space.
One of my friends who attended the Rockwood show told me ‘Man, if you guys did this as a weekly thing, I would come every single week. There’s nothing like hearing kick-ass classical music played in an environment that I comfortable in'”.
So, with the launching, the initial concerts and some profound buzz coming from both the NY Times and us, the group has lots to be thankful for, but the hard work begins.
“Right now, after launch, it’s happening, after 2 or 3 years of working on this endeavor, it’s finally happening, and there is a real feeling of excitement and community and buzz going on between members of The Declassified. Now what we have to do is keep riding that wave and which means to keep working hard. It’s always a difficulty after something like our launch–which was a real high moment – to keep the momentum going, so, I think that’s what we’re aiming for, especially in the short weeks after. We couldn’t be more psyched for the future, as it’s wide open and we are just getting started.”.
The Declassified is now official, but the launching campaign continues with several days left, and they can still use some contributions, so feel free to donate.