What Goes With Classical Music? Checkers, Cornhole and Cake Pops!

After Pacific Symphony's all-Bernstein concert, patrons played giant checkers and cornhole on Argyros Plaza. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony)

The new buzzword in the arts these days is accessibility. It’s why the Segerstrom Center for the Arts spent $15 million last year turning its plaza into a convivial and inviting space to see free shows on an outdoor stage.

And it’s why Pacific Symphony introduced a new series of three Friday-night concerts during the 2018-19 season in collaboration with KUSC, Southern California’s popular classical music station.

Called Classical KUSC @ Pacific Symphony, the concerts are co-curated by the radio station and the orchestra, and each one is hosted by a different KUSC announcer.

On Friday we got the first installment, an evening devoted to the music of Leonard Bernstein on the occasion of his 100th birthday. (Lennie died in 1990, only five days after announcing his retirement, but his spirit still dominates American classical music.)

All things considered, the intermission-free event went quite well. Beginning an hour before the curtain, host Alan Chapman, a familiar voice at KUSC, talked about the joys and challenges of tackling Bernstein’s music with soprano Celena Shafer, who would perform later that night. In the lobby, a pianist serenaded us with the great man’s compositions, including some fascinating atonal works that are seldom heard. The lobby bar was even serving something called a Lenny’s Manhattan, though I’m not sure what, exactly, Lenny-ized it.

The concert itself was less than two hours long, and even before conductor Carl St.Clair and his musicians played a note, you knew this evening would be anything but conventional. As the orchestra members sauntered to their music stands, a rising murmur swept the crowd. Instead of their usual formal wear, the musicians had dressed down for the occasion – the men in suits of various shades, the women in sometimes colorful, fairly casual clothes. (A string player pushed the envelope with her boldly striped leggings.)

Chapman and St.Clair led us through the program, designed to demonstrate Bernstein’s ability to bridge many musical divides as a composer.

The concert started with “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” which showcased Bernstein’s easy mastery of both classical music and jazz. It’s a noisy, brawling work, if not particularly deep, and the orchestra’s brass and sax sections, no doubt enjoying this string-free outing, gave it every bit of the joyous cacophony it needs.

Bernstein’s beautifully crafted Chichester Psalms were next, demonstrating his deep understanding of sacred music. The orchestra was joined by the Pacific Chorale, sounding as rich and nuanced as ever. Boy soprano Angel Garcia lived up to his name with a divinely sweet though very soft solo in Psalm 23. The strings were ravishing in several exposed passages.

The evening ended with a taste of Broadway Bernstein. Shafer excelled in “Candide’s” soprano torture test, “Glitter and Be Gay,” delivering a surprisingly physical and comic performance for a concert setting. And every musician on the stage got to participate in “Make Our Garden Grow,” one of Bernstein’s most heartfelt songs.

Not everybody loved the new format. “How horrible,” muttered a woman behind us when the orchestra members assembled, apparently shocked by their sartorial choices. She and her companion left before the Broadway songs started.

But for every purist who’s turned off by the series’ unbuttoned approach to classical music, I suspect there were several newbies who were delighted to attend. The standing ovation at concert’s end was lustier than usual.

The evening’s themes of accessibility and frivolity didn’t stop with the show. Afterwards, Pacific Symphony musicians and audience members mingled and chatted on the plaza. A jazz combo performed an all-Bernstein set. Some people played cornhole, others got mesmerized with games of checkers on gargantuan boards. And everyone seemed thrilled by the event’s final gift: free cake pops.

The Classical KUSC @ Pacific Symphony series continues with hosts Brian Lauritzen on Feb. 1 and John Van Driel March 22.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.