A Little Schubert:
Jonathan Sheffer Chronicles the Ascent of EOS
by Tony Phillips
“Now we’re finally talking about something important,” Jonathan Sheffer laughs. After chronicling the remarkable, eight-year ascent of his EOS Orchestra to its current perch as New York’s go-to company for avant-garde takes on classical compositions, the subject at last turns to tuxes. “ I’ve never worn a tuxedo in my life to conduct,” the New York native insists. His guest spot at the Met conducting for the American Ballet Theatre in 2001 would suggest otherwise, but Sheffer is adamant. “I would feel too much like a headwaiter,” he claims, “that’s possibly the worst look for a musician. I try to find unusual suits and shirts I think are flattering. God knows that’s difficult enough.”
But degree of difficulty isn’t exactly the first thing that springs to mind when one considers EOS. Whether its their unique repertory — a recent Christmas concert highlighted an almost extinct early Baroque piece by Heinrich Schutz — or the pains taken to present the work — Sheffer famously lured ex-pat Paul Bowles from Morocco after a 25-year sojourn for a premiere of the author’s music — Sheffer’s grace note is making it look easy. Granted, there’s as much care taken in presenting that look as there are in the many cross-disciplinary collaborations taking place in any given season. But the ease with which it all comes off — people like Cherry Jones and Basil Twist just seem to pop up — belies weeks of frenetic planning and rehearsal.
“What’s your slant?” is one of the first things Sheffer asks about our interview. The question displays a press savvy that makes one realize The New York Times doesn’t dispatch reporters from their Style Desk to cover just anyone’s birthday party as they did for Sheffer’s recent 50th. From deluxe marketing materials right down to not only his own outfit, but wardrobe for the rest of the up-to 70 freelance musicians rotating through the EOS family, Sheffer evidences an eye for detail while contrasting the freedom of what’s essentially a pick-up company for the musicians with his own over-arching duties as artistic director. “With every concert, there’s more planning, more meetings, more everything. The musicians get to choose. They go to the freezer counter and just select.”
“They’re very busy people,” Sheffer continues when asked about the personal dynamics of conducting his orchestra. “I’m really trying to make an impact in the way they spend their time, what their devotion is to a freelance organization and I’m working very hard to begin to get some more activity going outside of just rehearsals and concerts. We went on tour last year for ten days and that group of people grew to be very close.” He sounds almost morose when the discussion becomes social, “These are people that are just too committed almost every day of their year for me to be able to see them in a meaningful way,” but perks right back up when the subject again turns to clothes. “I’ve encouraged them to chic it up,” Sheffer details of his dress code for the orchestra, “I always tell them to dress like they’re going on a first date. The ways that freelance orchestras dress are not really given much attention. I’m very concerned about that. It’s part of a change in the whole sense of what a musician’s life consists of and what orchestras are.”
What an orchestra does is a different question entirely. “Musical sculpting” is as close as Sheffer comes to answering it. While some would define EOS as an orchestra dedicated to presenting the lesser-known works of well known classical composers, Sheffer suggests there’s more to it than that. He describes EOS’ recent Christmas concert in terms that have more in common with Hip-Hop than early Baroque. To his ear, the Schutz they presented “had a minimalist, almost pop music quality to it” and he kept tinkering with the piece — “Reorchestrating and taking out things that made it sound baroque” — until he was satisfied. “I feel empowered to do this because this is a work that’s been edited and added to for centuries. So I added to it and changed the instrumentation. You can’t even talk about authenticity when the source material is so sketchy.”
But it’s much more urgent than tinkering with a centuries old oratorio. The Schutz, like most of the choral work EOS presents, is sung in its English translation. And yes, there’s sometimes slang. It’s part of a sea change typified by the populist mission guiding EOS through what Sheffer is quick to categorize as a crisis in contemporary classical music. Sheffer firmly believes opera should reach people. And not just sonically. One of this season’s highlights, the orchestra’s fifth collaboration with Christopher Alden, contemporary opera’s reigning bad boy director, picks up Wagner’s Ring cycle with The Valkyrie. If 2001’s chamber reduction of Wagner’s The Rhinegold is anything to gauge by, this season holds more go-go dancing Gods replete with a shimmering metallic peepshow curtain that looks on loan from the Gaiety. And why not? “The conceit is the gods coexist in the space as kind of ghost like figures alongside mortals,” Sheffer explains, “humans and gods are unaware of each other.” And if fishnets and garters help make that point relevant to EOS’ “well-heeled” audience, so much the better.
It is the kind of thing that can get opera purists screaming arias, though, and has even made some critics suggest practices as inane as closing one’s eyes when Alden is at the helm. “Christopher’s work is very provocative,” Sheffer begins, “as I think opera should be. I obviously have a predilection for productions that really take on the work and take on the audience. Traditional staging of opera is useless at this point. Not that they can’t be excellent and revealing, but it’s much more interesting to make it work in a contemporary context.” His collaboration with Alden begins with an idea and then the casting. “We look for singers who are eager to throw themselves into this sort of a challenge.” The orchestra then emerges from the rehearsal period — “three to four weeks of being together every day” — with a work driven by both the direction and the music “so the final result is something where you have complete ownership of the material.”
This immersion more or less extends to the many other artists sharing the stage with EOS. “Christopher and I have the longest running collaboration, but people like Michael Nyman and Philip Glass tend to come and go. They visit us and leave. I think these things just develop naturally. The individual artists have their own projects and companies and intersect with us when they do.” As far as a more concerted effort to cross-pollinate the arts, Sheffer cautions, “It comes down to a question of money and how much anyone can bring to the table. Everyone is kind of caught up in raising money to present their own activities so there’s almost no presenter or company that can make a commitment that’s meaningful.”
“This is a very big year for us and Schubert,” Sheffer replies when asked about his own particular commitment to the Romantic composer this year. “This theme running through our season is to try and deal with Schubert’s legacy. What has the legacy meant in terms of his orchestrated songs and what happened to all those sketches this young man left at his death?” The program, entitled Unfinished/Refinished, examines much of what the composer left behind, from his own unfinished “Symphony No. 8” to trombonist David Taylor’s “be-bop inflected Schubert.” As is always the case with EOS, the secret is in the approach, its unique way in. Last season’s take on Gustav Mahler came through his Miramaxed wife Alma. This year, Sheffer is also following his nose. “It’s an unusually musicologically heavy program for EOS,” he admits of the Schubert, “we don’t generally do things that deal in musicological curiosity, but in this case my musicology got the best of me and the audience will deal with it as best they can.”