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Alarm Will Sound signals long-term, local adventure in new classical music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2012 - You don’t often see classical musicians lying down on the job. Literally. As in playing their string and wind instruments on their backs.

Staging supine performances is just one way a contemporary classical chamber ensemble with deepening St. Louis connections sets itself apart.

Another is its name: Alarm Will Sound (AWS). The moniker sprung from a source more concerned with muscle than music: a gym.

Working out one day, managing director Gavin Chuck and artistic director-conductor Alan Pierson spotted the “Alarm Will Sound” sign on the emergency exit. Its reference to urgency was appealing, and the idea ultimately edged out other prospective names, including Walls Have Ears.

“Alarm Will Sound suggests a sense of adventure, maybe a little bit of danger, like if you went through that emergency exit,” Chuck said.

Today’s Beethovens?

One thing famous composers like Mozart, Bach and Stravinsky have in common is that their work is finished.

“People have the idea that most composers are dead,” Chuck said.

But less familiar, more current names -- such as John Adams, Derek Bermel and Steve Reich -- are making the 21st-century art music that most resonates with Alarm Will Sound.

“These composers are all very much alive and kicking,” Chuck said.

The ensemble, formed in 2001 by Chuck, Pierson and others at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., was described by the New York Times as “The future of classical music.” But it’s a future linked to the past by a strong traditional thread.

“The music is adventurous and on the edge -- just as Beethoven was in his day,” Chuck said.

The lying down, video accompaniments and occasional costumes -- opera attire, a horse head, T-shirts bearing images of Marcel Duchamp -- are also part of the new musical experience. But these staging extras aren’t just gimmicks, according to Pierson and Chuck.

“Our performers are very adventurous: they will sing, they will act, they will move around stage,” Chuck said. “But we do everything for solid artistic reasons.”

“The goal is always to offer the most complete and engrossing and memorable artistic experience we can,” Pierson said. “But it’s best not to stage works that were not designed to be staged.”

Sinquefields secure local connection

While AWS members may don a costume only now and then, they almost always wear several hats. Everyone has a “day job,” many of which are plum positions.

Pierson’s the director for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Chuck’s a visiting music professor at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, and cellist Stefan Freund teaches at the University of Missouri. Others play in a variety of bands and orchestras or teach in universities and conservatories in cities including San Francisco, South Carolina, Baltimore and Montreal.

But all roads lead to Missouri at this point in AWS’s journey. The St. Louis focus grew out of what was then called Mizzou’s New Music Summer Festival, funded by philanthropist Jeanne Sinquefield and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation.

The foundation sponsors AWS’s St. Louis performances, including its Oct. 18 debut, even footing the bill for re-usable stage extensions at the Sheldon to make room for the 20-piece ensemble. But that’s just a start.

AWS plans to promote local composers by performing more of their works, and to begin an educational outreach program next year. That would include musicians visiting schools and also playing concerts side-by-side with student musicians. Ultimately, AWS could open its own venue or educational facility here, according to Mizzou’s Freund.

“Maybe we’ll have our own hall or performance center. Maybe we’ll have the Alarm Will Sound School of Music or a community music program,” Freund said. “For now, we’re just getting our feet wet.”

The area is a good fit with AWS for three reasons, Chuck noted.

“It’s a combination of the support of the Sinquefield Foundation, seeing a space in the culture in St. Louis for a group like ours, and taking that risk that’s sort of built into the DNA of Alarm Will Sound,” Chuck said.

The Sheldon vs the Stadium

AWS is accustomed to performing for crowds of 500 people but only around 100 saw them at the Sheldon in October.

The low turnout may have been caused in part by a widespread, contagious local affliction: Cardinal Fever. As the ensemble played on the Sheldon stage, the Cards were winning Game Four of the playoffs against the San Francisco Giants.

“That probably didn’t help,” Chuck said. “But the audience was enthusiastic and we had a really great time.”

Baseball season won’t have started on March 20, the date of AWS’s next St. Louis appearance at the Sheldon. The ensemble will preview a program to be featured at Carnegie Hall along with “Radio Rewrite,” a Steve Reich composition influenced by Radiohead.

But AWS will have to compete with the Cardinals-Pirates game at Busch Stadium on the night of their April 26 show at The Touhill. Still, even die-hard baseball fans may find something to like in the ensemble's “1969,” a multimedia musical examination of the turbulent decade’s end.

The show tells the story of the composers of the time: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Leonard Bernstein and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Actors play three of them with AWS’s bassoon player taking on the role of Bernstein. Using material from historical texts, the composer-characters grapple with questions about portraying the period in music, as news footage of Vietnam, Woodstock and other galvanizing events plays behind them.

“The role of the video is to immerse the audience in the times,” Pierson said. “It’s really a show unlike anything else.”

Like the Cardinals, AWS is planning a long-term relationship with St. Louis. Working toward that goal includes building a following that includes but extends far beyond classical-music lovers.

“We always hope for broadest audience possible, the kind of audience that enjoys offbeat contemporary original art, be it theater or visual art,” Pierson said. “That kind of adventurous, open-minded audience is ripe for what AWS brings to the stage.”

Note: Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield are contributors to the Beacon.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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