Matt Szymanski and the Orchestra Reborn
What would it look like to launch a new orchestra from the ground up while trying to be accessible, appealing, and, most importantly, social? That is the question that From the Top alum and conductor Matthew Szymanski posed to a group of like-minded friends back in 2014. Over time, the answer became clear and Matt and his fellow Boston musicians formed Phoenix: The Orchestra Reborn.
Having attended one of their stellar concerts, I can personally attest to the group achieving its goal. My husband and I experienced a Phoenix concert at the Villa Victoria Meeting House in South Boston.
It is a Thursday night in a lovely old community center and the lights have been turned down. Instead of black evening wear, the musicians wear bright red shirts and jeans. The audience members sit at tables and chairs and sip drinks. A card placed on your table encourages you to applaud whenever the mood hits.
Matt begins the evening playing his euphonium in the orchestra but steps up to the podium for the second piece. He and his fellow musicians take turns speaking between pieces, often inserting a gentle humor that relaxes the crowd who clearly feels receptive to these new ideas. During intermission, he encourages the audience to drop their names in a jar. The winner of the draw is invited to come up for the next piece and sit in a chair right in the middle of the orchestra. The winner and fellow audience members are delighted by this experience. Make no mistake, however, this orchestra takes its job seriously.
It was soon after Matt arrived at Interlochen for his junior year that the conducting bug hit him. Initially, his conducting gigs were casual and organized at the last minute. Then, From the Top selected Matt to conduct the Dvorak Wind Serenade with the Interlochen ensemble, Mostly Winds, on Show 151. This time, it was serious business.
“I went from doing my own thing as a euphonium performer to conducting in front of a large live audience,” Matt explained. “My work with Mostly Winds was one of my first experiences putting together an ensemble from the ground up.” This was an experience he feels led directly to his role today as Founder, President, and Music Director of Phoenix.
So how did Matt go from there to founding the orchestra that is now called Phoenix?
“I went through conducting auditions nationwide with orchestras that were fantastic, but I just wasn’t interested in what they were doing to change the paradigm of orchestral performance. I had developed these crazy ideas of new ways to perform and I wondered – what if I stayed here in Boston and tried those ideas with an orchestra – a new orchestra?”
Matt decided to organize an evening of pizza and beer at his house, and together with like-minded friends, they held a brainstorming session. “I began with seven to ten pages of notebook scribble,” Matt said. “We would seat folks at tables instead of in rows, serve drinks, verbally introduce each piece and include humor when we could, perform on the same level as the audience, wear clothing that was closer to what the audience was wearing, and talk with our audience during intermission.” By carrying out these ideas, they could create an interactive experience during the performance.
“The summer of 2014 was when things became more concrete and we finally started planning a couple of concerts.” In January of 2015, they launched a fundraising campaign on the website Kickstarter. “For our Kickstarter page, we recorded a music video of the orchestra playing Bizet’s Carmen in Jordan Hall. We also filmed ourselves hanging out at a swimming pool and paired the two films with each other. This was meant to get across the idea that their musicians were truly getting into the middle of things with their audience.” In the end, the Kickstarter campaign far exceeded their goals, and they began with a two-concert season in 2015.
“We pride ourselves on our audition and interview process,” Matt continued. “When auditioning people for spots, we listen to them play, but we also listen to how they speak. We try to figure out if they are as passionate about the mission of Phoenix as we are. What ideas do you have about new ways to present the orchestra? What are your ideas about our future?” Once he secures the right people for the orchestra, Matt feels that he becomes a facilitator as well as a conductor. “We are administratively self-run, so we are often evaluating everything we’ve done and talking about what can we add to engage the audience further. That is why,” Matt reflected, “we are called Phoenix. We are all about constant rebirth.”
Here at From the Top we are duly impressed with Matt’s drive and creativity. We commend you, Matt, as well as your fellow orchestra members. We look forward to watching you bring classical music into a progressive future.
To hear Matt’s segment on From the Top go to Show 151, Interlochen, MI. http://www.fromthetop.org/show/interlochen-mi-151/
To learn more about Phoenix go to their website: http://www.phoenixorch.org/
To catch the video of Phoenix playing Carmen and romping at the swimming pool go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=392KL9_6aQI
– Janet Fagan, 2016