The orchestra has just finished tuning its instruments. Aaron Vandermeer, the night’s featured soloist, plays a ditty on his instrument, a cellular phone. The conductor turns to the audience, and with his arms raised, signals for the start of the music.
Soon, the sounds of violins, flutes and trumpets fill the theater, accompanied by 100 cell phones ringing at once.
This is the sound of Columbia’s first cell phone concert.
Saturday, the Missouri Theatre opened its Hot Summer Nights season with “Cell Phones & Beethoven,” the first event in its Classical Series. “Concertino for Cell Phones and Orchestra” was the second performance of the evening, but without a doubt the most unique.
So unique, in fact, that audience members had to go through a brief tutorial on how to participate.
The conductor, along with Vandermeer, instructed the audience on when to start playing their cell phones. Audience members were given cues with colored lights: red for those on the floor and green for those in the balcony.
Many in the audience were intrigued by the idea behind the performance.
“I expect a new appreciation for cell phones and classical music,” said Jill Christman. “I never would have put the two together.”
After the piece ended, most agreed they had enjoyed the unusual musical combination.
“It was fun,” said Marilyn Coneman. “It helped that there were trained cell-phonists on stage.”
Along with Vandermeer, four other cell-phonists accompanied the orchestra, creating a cell phone choir.
The concertino was composed by David Baker, a professor of music at Indiana University, who has written more than 2,000 musical compositions and been nominated several times for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.
According to the program notes, Paul Freeman, the founder and music director of Chicago’s Sinfonietta, said that the idea came to him after sitting in a crowded airport waiting room. There were about 150 people milling around, with more than half of them talking on their cell phones. The discordant clash of sounds got Freeman thinking.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting to somehow combine this technological miracle with the symphony orchestra?” he said. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
He sent word around his circle of composer friends that he was interested in getting such a piece written. It was Baker who rose to the challenge.
“When Maestro Freeman asked me to write a piece for orchestra that would actually incorporate cellular phones producing these intrusive sounds,” Baker said, “I was ... surprised at the concept but intrigued with the possibilities.”
By combining the sound of hundreds of different ring tones chiming at the same time with the structure and organization of an orchestra, Baker said that he hoped to show how chaos and organization have become a part of modern society.
“There’s a wonderful balance between (chaos and organization) because that’s how our lives are,” Baker said in an Indiana University press release. “Moving from the known to the unknown is very exciting.”