TVD Recommends: Ensemble HD at the Happy Dog, 12/5

The bar setting is usually reserved for fledgling bands who are trying to “make it,” or bands who are touring and looking for an intimate venue. It’s not every day you get to see members of a world-renowned orchestra performing in a saloon. Yes, you read that sentence right. Members of the Cleveland Orchestra performing ensemble pieces in one of Cleveland’s hottest bar spots. In tee shirts and jeans. Recording a live vinyl record. 

The ensemble in question is known by the name Ensemble HD and was created by Cleveland Orchestra member and principal flutist, Joshua Smith. The bar in question is none other than the Happy Dog, which usually hosts music that fits more into the punk, rock, or experimental genres. The album will embrace the juxtaposition of the bar setting—its clinking glasses and shouting patrons—with the delicacy and intimacy that only classical music can demand.

“I think what I’m feeling is that there’s this kind of internal problem that all of us should do this,” said Smith, “those people who run art institutions are worrying about the aging and declining of their main audiences and everyone’s always worried about arts in the school system. How do we connect to anyone that makes what we do sustainable? Those are big thoughts that are always in place.

“I think what was occurring to me was that I don’t know how many people—even those people who go to concert halls—understand how fun it is for myself and my colleagues to do what we do, and I was trying to figure out a way to share the spontaneity and immediacy and communicative aspects of what we do, and the joy of it. I think one of the ways to do that is to get people up close and into it, not separated by the distance that a concert hall dictates.

“For a couple years, I had been trying to wrap myself around how to get classical music to people who might not necessarily come to a concert hall and where to do it in Cleveland. I guess playing at places like bars or parks or bus stations—they were all places that were starting to occur to me. I met Sean Watterson [Happy Dog’s co-owner] at a party during that period when I was starting to formulate all of these ideas and realized that he had live music (at the venue) but had hadn’t tried classical music, so I asked him if he’d be willing to give it a shot. He said sure, and I brought a couple of friends with me from the orchestra, and that’s kind of how it got started.”

The experience of performing inside a bar provides different concerns than a performance inside a concert hall. At a concert hall, the audience is quietly engaged, whereas at a bar, there is an environment centered around noise. The challenge of performing and engaging an audience inside the bar setting is something to which Ensemble HD rises. Smith said, “It’s not something that any of us are used to doing. There are many, many things wonderful about concert halls. The idea that this music is designed to be heard, paid attention to, and listened to quietly—there are reasons for that.”

“Doing Happy Dog is definitely bringing us out of our comfort zone and it’s bringing everyone who is listening out of their comfort zone as well. It’s not an expected thing that happens in anyone’s experience; I think that’s what makes it exciting. There’s always this element of risk and weirdness. It’s slightly uncomfortable, but it’s also very freeing when we realize we can allow ourselves to relax. What we’re doing is more essentially communicative and less obsessed with this goal of utter perfection. I think it’s more fun.”

The vinyl record of the Happy Dog performance will be a double-sided endeavor. Picking the pieces that made the cut for the album was no easy decision. Smith said, “we have up to 100 minutes of music. I thought that sounded like an overwhelming amount of time to fill, but once I started thinking about all of the music that I would love to do, I realized I had three hundred or four hundred minutes.”

“You have to pick stuff that everyone really, really cares about and something you want to say something specific about. Some of it is stuff we’ve done at the Happy Dog before so we know it works and engages, and some of it is just a bunch of ideas that were tossed out, and I started driving around in my car and listening to things, and I started creating an arc that I thought would work across a whole album and some of that was really fun to play around with and tailor. Some of what I ended up picking was kind of the accidental iPod—something slides into something else on a playlist. It was just a combination of stuff like that.”

The album will be recorded, produced, and created in Cleveland. “That wasn’t even a choice,” added Smith. “The producer and the engineer are people who I’ve worked with before, who I love, who I’ve had really good success with, and achieved really wonderful sound in all three of the projects that I’ve been involved in with them. And Gotta Groove Records is in Cleveland, which is amazing, actually.”

“Sean was the person who thought it would be really cool to do it on vinyl. That wasn’t something I had even thought of, but when he said it out loud I was like, Oh, that’s a lovely idea.

“And then here’s Gotta Groove. I mean, how many companies make vinyl anyway? And one of the best is in Cleveland. We’re all in Cleveland. All the stars are aligning in a way that didn’t offer any other choices any other way, happily.

“Classical music really sounds good on vinyl. The sound quality will be more open then on CD. I also love the idea for the possibilities for artwork and what gets included in the package.”

The record will be released next May, in conjunction with the Cleveland Orchestra’s residency in the Gordon Square Arts District. Proceeds from the record will go to a local music charity.

If you’re ready to be a part of this beautiful moment of collaboration, be sure to head out to the Happy Dog tonight for the live recording of the record. You can also contribute to the Kickstarter program.

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