A musical job unlike any other: A talk with Angel Gil-Ordóñez of the PostClassical Ensemble

The Ensemble's latest innovative programming series, with the South Dakota Symphony, examines the controversial relationship of Native American and American identity through music.

Correctly predicting what kind of serious art music would and would not be presented on American concert stages in 2019 would have fooled – even baffled – the most prescient of musical observers from 75 or 100 years ago. If you had told them “a whole lot of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” they probably would have thought the United States had been culturally paralyzed rather than becoming perhaps the most dynamic nation in human history.

Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director of the PostClassical Ensemble. Photo by Paul Emerson.

Two decades into the 21st century, maybe it takes a European-born, American immigrant conductor to right the ship. That’s part of the unusual, demanding and also innovative mission of Angel Gil-Ordóñez, the music director of the intriguingly named but internationally known PostClassical Ensemble based here in Washington.

The events of the PostClassical Ensemble (PCE) are neither ordinary concert nor typical lecture nor predictable cultural enrichment session. They combine elements of all of these, and Gil-Ordóñez’s job is to flexibly prepare and provide a variable gamut of live music inserted in infinite ways into these events.

Gil-Ordóñez leads the PCE’s orchestra, plus other combinations of instrumentalists and singers, in anything from full symphonic movements to time-lapse demonstrations of how American folk songs became concert pieces (or sometimes even the other way around) to the fascinating challenge of conducting live soundtracks to historically important films. Those films could be Hollywood classics but could just as easily be surprising or edgy gems from places and times like Mexico in 1935 or the Soviet Union in 1929, provided they demonstrate something about the migration of musical trends to or from America.

In anticipation of this week’s PCE events on Native American Inspirations in American concert music, Gil-Ordóñez sat down with me for a discussion of the accomplishments and aspirations of the Post-Classical Ensemble.

The previously peripatetic PCE had ranged around many of the concert venues of the Washington area until 2017 when it settled into a residency at the National Cathedral. Gil-Ordóñez credits the cathedral and its Director of Music, Michael McCarthy, with further expanding PCE’s reach to the entire community.

“We had collaborated with him in the past,” recalls Gil-Ordóñez. “He said that the way you present classical music, the way you tell stories, the way you contextualize music, belongs in the National Cathedral. You have empathy with the community, empathy with the audience.” Still, Gil-Ordóñez gives a nod to the many venues where PCE has performed in the past from the Music Center at Strathmore to the National Gallery of Art, quipping that while PCE may have been a “nomadic ensemble,” it’s had the advantage of “stealing audiences from everywhere we’ve been.”

Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Photo by Paul Emerson.

It’s a cliché to say that music of a particular composer remains undiscovered, but the problems of the American concert stage go well beyond cliché. Gil-Ordóñez says that in the case of 20th-century American music, a striking number of composers of the time were actually considered “amateurish” when they composed their music. Even George Gershwin was derided this way during his lifetime, says Gil-Ordóñez, only later to become the concert and opera music icon he is now with his Porgy and Bess leading off the current Metropolitan Opera season and due to close the current Washington National Opera season.

Gil-Ordóñez’s experience of conducting a live orchestra to film scenes certainly has made him less of a snob in that sense. Among classical music scholars, the serious-music reputation of Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, who orchestrated Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movies, has suffered for doing so. “But what people don’t know is that Bernard Herrmann had a concert music career,” says Gil-Ordóñez. “So this is why we were interested in presenting that concert music. He has a phenomenal Sinfonietta for Strings. I did the premiere – can you believe that? – of the Sinfonietta right here in the National Gallery of Art.”

Cross-fertilization of American artists with other, multi-disciplinary figures from the Western Hemisphere is a particular obsession of the Post-Classical Ensemble. For example, an amazing number of artists and cultural craftsmen from various disciplines had drifted to the Mexico of the 1930s, producing art that often dealt in the labor and social justice issues of the time. An example is a one-hour film with the Spanish title of Redes, or “nets” as in fishermen’s nets. It was one of the projects where Gil-Ordóñez took the baton and conducted the PCE orchestra directly as the film aired, a production that is available on DVD for anyone to see.

“This is an extraordinary collaboration between intellectuals,” says Gil-Ordóñez. “The music is by [Mexican composer] Silvestre Revueltas, but the direction is by Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon and From Here to Eternity, and the cinematography is by Paul Strand, one of the most exciting cinematographers in the United States. They all coincided in Mexico to create this film.”

Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Photo by Paul Emerson.

Historically, why has so much of this material, which should be natural to American rather than European audiences, been left on the cutting-room floor of concert stages? The Madrid-born, Munich-trained conductor gives a nod to his partnership with PCE executive director Joseph Horowitz in his answer. Horowitz is a well-known American scholar, journalist, and concert producer whose books such as Artists in Exile explore the intersection of European and American influences, as well as the tendency for the American classical music scene to ossify when it forgets its own original influences.

“Joe, in his writings, says something that really fascinates me,” relates Gil-Ordóñez. “The United States has been obsessed with performers, not composers. In Europe the composer is the hero. So when European performers, including conductors, became famous touring around America, all these European performers performed European music, not American music.” PCE brings American composers back to the fore even if they were from marginalized groups.

On Wednesday, October 16, PCE’s program “From Spilllville to Pine Ridge” program combines nine members of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra with singers and instrumentalists from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation plus the PCE’s regular forces for both music composed by Native American composers and music composed by Europeans and Americans inspired by American Indian culture. PCE attendees will have to get used to hearing the idea of an “Indianist movement,” which was a valid reference a century ago to taking Native American tunes and working them into art songs and instrumental classical music.

A key musical proponent of the Indianist movement was a white composer from St. Paul, Minnesota named Arthur Farwell, whose a capella choral works and piano pieces will be featured on the PCE program. But the program will also present works by European composers Antonin Dvorak and Ferruccio Busoni. Dvorak spent time in Iowa and South Dakota during his multi-year American sojourn in the early 1890s, and his beautiful, four-minute Larghetto from his Violin Sonatina came to be known, without any negative connotation, as the “Indian Lament.” Having Dvorak’s “Indian Lament” on the same program as the Washington premiere of North American Indigenous Songs by living American composer Curt Cacioppo is part of the unique presentation style of PCE’s programs.

Gil-Ordóñez notes that the movement at the time for American concert music to draw inspiration from Native American tunes was parallel to roots-based and folk-song movements around the world in so-called “classical” or art music. “It has to do with the end of the 19th century being a moment of finding national identity,” says Gil-Ordóñez. “That was true in general in art, but in music specifically. The idea was: What does it mean to be a Czech composer? What does it mean to be a Hungarian composer? What does it mean to be a Spanish composer?”

The Indianist movement was one American manifestation of this global trend, and this week’s program clearly follows on a PCE program from February 2018 at the National Cathedral entitled “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual,” which delved into the African-American roots of what became part of the American concert music canon. As in many PCE programs, the evening dedicated itself to the chicken-and-egg puzzles of which came first, the popular tune or the classical treatment.

There were examples of both: The second movement of Dvorak’s 1893 Symphony No. 9, universally known as the “New World Symphony,” is often thought to be quoting the spiritual “Goin’ Home,” when it’s the other way around: American composer William Arms Fisher, a student of Dvorak’s, wrote the lyrics to Dvorak’s melody in 1922.

Meanwhile, today’s spiritual titled “Deep River” actually began as an upbeat song popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 19th century before settling in as a slow spiritual popularized by Marian Anderson and others in the 20th century via the work of another African-American student of Dvorak’s, Harry Burleigh, and others. During the 2018 event, that was demonstrated by Gil-Ordóñez and his vocal and instrumental forces over three separate arrangements consecutively performed during the PCE event to show the transformation of the music.

Perhaps there will be additional un-scramblings of the historical chicken and egg during Wednesday’s event, the first of three concerts in a week-long PCE exploration of Native American influence in music that is either widely known today, or should be. But don’t think you have to bring pens or pencils and take notes, lecture-style. Angel Gil-Ordóñez will be there to show you via music what the solution is to any historical problems that crop up. As long as the Post-Classical Ensemble continues to thrive in Washington, that’s likely to be its appeal to an unusually wide swath of “classical” music concert-goers.  

Native American Inspirations: From Spillville to Pine Ridge, with the Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, will be presented by the Post-Classical Ensemble on October 16, 2019, at 7:30 pm at the National Cathedral – 3101 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to this or the other events in the October 16-21 series, go online

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.

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