Pick’s not just for orchestras anymore

Kimra McPherson

Once upon a time, a night at a concert hall meant cellos and concertos, ball gowns and Beethoven. Classical music seemed inaccessible, reserved for a stereotypically stodgy audience – one that didn’t include your average music-loving college student.

But these days, with Yo-Yo Ma and Sting performing side-by-side at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and Pavarotti collaborating with U2, classical musicians have started to cross over into other genres, challenging their fans to experience different musical forms.

“As time goes on, more and more people are breaking out of this box that if you’re a classical musician, you can only play with classical musicians,” said Richard Van Kleeck, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall’s director of concerts. “Without taking anything away from any one style of music, good musicians appreciate good musicians.”

And that’s the philosophy behind Van Kleeck’s latest brainchild: Sounding Board, an “all-things-considered” music series that seeks to bring music from all genres into Pick-Staiger, a venue known for its classical performances.

“As classical audiences get older and smaller, it’s important to start doing programs that widen out the spectrum,” Van Kleeck said. “There’s not as much tunnel vision as there used to be in the world of music.”

The series will kick off Feb. 28 with a performance by the rock band Fruit, voted Australia’s best up-and-coming live act at the 2001 Australian Live Music Awards. The group, fronted by three female vocalists, incorporates elements of blues and funk into its pop songs. Fruit’s Sounding Board performance will be its Chicago area debut.

Van Kleeck said the experimental format of Sounding Board will give Fruit – and all other performers in the series – a chance to challenge their own limits.

“(Sounding Board) is going to be very informal,” he said. “It’s not going to be like your normal classical concert. It’s going to have a very relaxed, fun atmosphere.”

By allowing performers to deviate from their standard stage shows – maybe even performing with Northwestern student ensembles – Sounding Board could become a lively stop for performers passing through Chicago, Van Kleeck said.

“Touring groups get bored out of their minds doing the same thing every night,” he said. “We can’t compete with a 2,000- or 3,000-seat hall in Chicago, but we can build a reputation.”

And Van Kleeck has experience with that. During his 17 years at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, he established the Lonesome Pine Special series – concerts that introduced performers like Lyle Lovett and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to the musical community. The series also featured special events, like a night of Beatles songs performed by blues, country, jazz and pop groups that combined performers from all musical backgrounds on the same stage. The series ran for five years on PBS and is archived at the Smithsonian Institute.

Now finishing his first full year at NU, Van Kleeck decided to try a similar program for the college audience. Expanding students’ musical horizons adds value to their college experience, he said.

“Music is so amorphous,” he said. “Everybody likes some kind of music. Even in elevators, it’s unavoidable. Most people, they really just aren’t ready to imagine or just don’t know that there are a lot of different kinds of music out there that could really enrich their lives in a lot of ways.”

When Van Kleeck first came to NU last March, he met with students who said a series like Sounding Board could offer musical performances that students tend to travel into the city to find.

“There seems to be a real interest in doing this and a real regret that there aren’t more things going on on campus that they want to hear,” he said. “We shouldn’t be showing 20 percent or 5 percent of the whole world of music. We should be taking a broader view.”

Because Sounding Board won’t interfere with Pick’s already-full schedule of classical concerts and student group performances, Van Kleeck said the events should draw a large crowd – including people who normally wouldn’t attend Pick programming.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to be a greater part of people’s lives other than the School of Music,” Van Kleeck said. “There’s a whole greater world of music out there that we want to bring in and share with people.”

For Van Kleeck, scheduling quality programming isn’t about paying to bring big-name superstars who will draw audiences. Instead, he said he will seek artists who stay true to Sounding Board’s mission of challenging students and community members to experience different styles of music. Van Kleeck plans to schedule events whenever he can find a group meeting his requirements – probably five to six times each year.

“In the end, people go to concerts for what’s on stage,” he said. “My goal is to build up the confidence in students so they can trust that the events will be fun, interesting and worth taking the time to go to.” nyou