“The New Millennium Orchestra is one of the best additions to the city’s scene, bringing dj culture and classical music together.” —Time Out Chicago
Radical departures work best when accompanied by radical instructions, so when the New Millennium Orchestra staged a remix of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto by DJ jRicK immediately following its performance of the work last October at the Lakeshore Theatre, founder and violist Dominic Johnson knew he had to get the musicians’ attention. His instructions at one point read, “16 bars then shut the fuck up,” a directive difficult to misinterpret.
“No members of the press were supposed to see that,” says Johnson now, with a laugh, but he’s not upset at someone getting a picture of what goes on in the ensemble he founded almost two years ago with conductor Francesco Milioto and violinist Blagomira Lipari on a shoestring budget. They will play again Sunday 1 at the Chicago Cultural Center in a collaboration featuring Chicago Symphony trumpeter John Hagstrom, which will be the group’s third concert featuring a CSO player as soloist. As with the Shostakovich concert, there will be plenty of excitement, given that it will be put together in two rehearsals.
The NMO grew out of Johnson’s goal of a concert featuring a Beethoven symphony followed by a remix version of it. “I started asking my colleagues in the freelance community, and then called Francesco and Blagomira,” Johnson says. “Blagomira called her friends, Francesco called his, and we were able to make an orchestra.” To this point, it sounds like any other classical initiative, but Johnson had been hanging out at rodan, a DJ haven, and was playing with the art-rock band Rachel’s, giving him the means and the cred to pull off organizing a remix. In addition to being given carte blanche to program whatever it wants at the Lakeshore Theatre, the group will play an April 22 show tied to Earth Day at GreenFest at McCormick Place, and at HotHouse that night with DJ Spooky.
Classical musicians working with DJs and rock musicians still raise eyebrows, although the trend has lost its newness for the classical players. “The idea of classical musicians being limited to [classical music] has never been completely true, ever,” Milioto says. Not all the musicians in the NMO play in bands, but as Milioto puts it, “I’m sure that Dominic, whether he was in the NMO or not, would be playing classical gigs and other kinds of music,” and players sharing those aspirations have never been absent.
The traditional response to classical players taking on pop culture is that they’re not building an audience for classical music, only for hybrid art forms. “That’s totally not true,” Johnson says. “If the Mozart symphony is brought off the way it should be,” the audience will respond to it. When the core repertoire is played with conviction and enthusiasm, it doesn’t matter what background or level of engagement a listener brought to the show with him; he’ll end up enjoying Mozart. “It’s like, So, you’re from this generation, you latch onto the DJ concept, the DJ’s dangled and you get hit with a little bit of a classical warhorse, something that’s tried the test of time,” Johnson says. “The people who come for their bread-and-butter Beethoven also get a little bit of Varèse.”
Even so, the NMO hasn’t sold everyone on its Mozart. It played one concert at the Cultural Center with digital projections on a screen, prompting one audience member to write a letter and complain that the group played the symphony just fine and didn’t need the distracting projections. “He still wrote a check,” Milioto says, but he was pretty upset with the projections.
Violinist Lipari points out how strongly everyone in the ensemble believes in playing together, and how this sets it apart from orchestras that become like jobs. Milioto seconds this opinion, and he should know. He’s the one leading both rehearsals.
The NMO plays out Sunday 1.