Liza Sobel knew she was witnessing something special last summer when she happened upon the Nouveau Classical Project, a six-member classical ensemble, performing music she’d never heard.
Not only did the flutist, clarinetist, violinist, cellist, pianist and a soprano play and sing impeccably, but they effortlessly donned couture for the duration of their performance.
"It was all so stylish. They are really putting a new face on classical music with their nontraditional concert formats and fashion collaborations,” says Sobel, who is a third-year music composition and voice doctoral student at Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts from Cresskill, New Jersey.
Young composers dream of having such dedicated professional musicians play their works. Immediately after the private concert, Sobel reached out to the ensemble to invite them to play at Rutgers during the annual graduate composer forum this fall. She wanted her graduate school colleagues to have the chance to collaborate with the group.
“It’s always exciting – and important – for us to get the chance to hear our work, what’s been in our imaginations, particularly when all our pieces, with our different styles, are being played by the same experienced musicians,” says Sobel, who also teaches undergraduate courses in music technology and oral skills.
Because Mason Gross sits in between New York City and Philadelphia’s active new-music scenes, it is able to offer a conservatory-meets-research university experience. Master’s and doctoral music composition students often partner with professional ensembles to premier original works.“Both cities are major centers for classical music; our proximity makes this the best of both worlds,” Sobel says.
For their part, Nouveau Classical Project seeks adventurous projects and strives to expose emerging composers to new audiences, according to Sugar Vendil, a classical pianist and the ensemble’s founder.
“Rutgers was our first collaboration with students at a university. We usually work with designers and dance companies,” says Vendil.
The musicians selected eight student-composed works to perform during their mid-October collaborative concert at Schare Music Hall in New Brunswick.
"It’s obvious the students all work really hard,” Vendil says. “We wanted to represent them well.
"Once we had all the music, we really had to ask ourselves, ’What can we do well with a solid week of rehearsals?’ to choose which pieces we’d actually perform."
Sobel premiered "Memories of Siegel," a melancholy piece dedicated to her friend pianist Matt Siegel, who passed away just a week before the October concert.
"I'd only heard the music in my head or MIDI (short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) before the first rehearsal. You just hope it all works. It felt amazing to hear actual human beings playing my piece."John Wilson, a first-year choral conducting master’s student, served as one of the conductors for this year’s concert. He prepared by studying the "sonic landscape" of each composition, often working through the harmonic ideas at the piano.
“It’s like exploring uncharted territory," he says. "Conducting requires one to be a bit of a musical sleuth to uncover the structure and colors available in the score, particularly when you’re working on a new piece.”
Wilson says the collaboration was inspiring. “Nouveau Classical Project has a real love of contemporary music. Their energy is infectious.”