In 1857, downtown Brooklyn—now fondly referred to as DUMBO—was a sleepy, riverside village. It was also the inaugural year for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. When Bizet, Berlioz and Wagner were the creative voices of the generation in Europe, the Brooklyn Phil was right there with them, launching a classical music culture in the heart of Manhattan’s borough.

Tim Fite © ANTI-
Tim Fite
© ANTI-

Fast forward to the present day: after a period as a hotbed for industry, DUMBO’s abandoned warehouses now serve as artist studios, bookshops and performing arts venues. And although the Brooklyn Phil suffered during the recession, they have returned with a vengeance, determined to reinvigorate Brooklyn's classical music culture.

The Outside-In Composer Fellowship Program, an offshoot of the Brooklyn Phil, pairs non-orchestral composers from diverse musical backgrounds, including hip hop, electronica, world music, jazz and indie rock, with Resident Composer-Mentor Randy Woolf, and Artistic Director Alan Pierson. Composers learn the process of writing music for string quartet and chamber ensemble, without abandoning their diverse musical influences. The result: a vibrant and fresh approach to classical music.

Charlie Looker, one of the Outside-In Fellows, admitted that writing orchestral music is strict and uncompromising, but also meditative. This sense of calm was the initial feeling in Looker’s piece, Eve’s Prayer. But suspended cello and viola lines soon gave way to a mix of personalities. First, the addition of soprano and electric guitar lent Eve’s Prayer a rock ballad quality, which quickly transitioned into jarring harmonies reminiscent of Looker’s ‘apocalypse’ theme. Strangely, Eve’s Prayer also felt tribal, with the drumming in the background: a clear nod to the title. Unfortunately, these two central themes—the Feminine (Eve) and the Apocalypse—felt disjointed and unsettling. Knowing now that the piece is actually a small ensemble study, and will someday be incorporated into a large-scale opera, helps explain its unpolished feel. In a few years, we might have an exciting rock opera on our hands.

Next up was Jeremiah Lockwood, one of last year's Outside-In fellows. His piece, As Long as the Breath Rattles My Bones, is an homage to Piedmont blues master Carolina Slim, a street musician who inspired Lockwood to experiment with folk, jazz and blues music. A mix of Slim's recorded voice and music for string quartet, it was hard not to notice how the musical language imitated Slim's jagged and slurred speech. The incorporation of recorded voice also made the music more immediate and raw, as if instead of being in a concert venue, we were deep underground, waiting for the L train to take us to Brooklyn.

This was a provocative piece, and the most compelling moment of As Long as the Breath Rattles My Bones was in the final movement. Lush melodies broke through the carefree, bluesy feel of previous movements to portray Slim’s more serious message: ‘I want to be more loving.’ Harkening back to the musical culture of the South, Lockwood drew upon on Gospel influences in this last movement, creating a harmonically bright and spiritual conclusion.

Closing the concert was Tim Fite’s Copy Cat. A vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist, Copy Cat is Fite’s first ever written-down musical composition. It’s also a complex metaphor for Fite’s eclectic musical style. Admittedly a copy cat himself, Fite’s music is repetitious and recurrent, but also extremely lively and entertaining. In Copy Cat, Fite combined several rotating self-similar forms: the story of Copy Cat (an imitating cat), call and response with the audience, and the Brooklyn Phil imitating booms, jingles—and the occasional cat’s meow—all emanating from Fite’s laptop. There was a lot going on during Fite’s performance, and at times, the Brooklyn Phil seemed to be background music for his theatrics. Nevertheless, Fite produced a totally new approach to classical music.

For an orchestra that has survived for more than a century, the Brooklyn Philharmonic is surprising innovative; the Brooklyn Phil has over 166 world premières and 65 works commissioned from living composers under its belt. Certainly a force to be reckoned with, the Brooklyn Phil—together with the Outside-In Fellows—is reimagining classical music for the next generation.