Stanford New Ensemble presents new classical music in new ways to new audiences

The Stanford New Ensemble offers music that is experimental and performed in untraditional venues around campus.

Courtesy Joo-Mee Lee Joo-Mee Lee

Joo-Mee Lee, lecturer in Stanford's Department of Music, directs performances of the Stanford New Ensemble in untraditional sites around campus.

Joo-Mee Lee's vision for the Stanford New Ensemble is as expansive as the "new classical music" genre.

Lee, who teaches introductory violin and a course on professional development in music in the Department of Music, said she is taking the Stanford New Ensemble out of the music hall for concerts in untraditional venues around campus. The 45-year-old campus music group is comprised of students and guest artists.

"I truly believe that the classical art forms need to be reachable by anyone and everyone, rather than only by those who dress up and go to the concert halls," she said.

Lee is also initiating collaborations with artists in other disciplines in order to capture a broader audience. "I am striving to create a gesamtkunstwerk, or a total art work, in a smaller scale in our future projects."

The theme of the ensemble's first performance in the fall was "theatrical elements in music," and it took place in the casual Oak Lounge at Tresidder Union. Guests brought their brownbag lunches to a free program that showcased, among others, Kristen Lurie, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, on double bass; and percussion soloists Dylan Hunn, a sophomore majoring in CS+music, on marimba, and Giuliano Kornberg, a coterminal master's student in music, science and technology.

The final piece in the program was an excerpt from William Walton's Façade. This was performed by the full ensemble conducted by Makulumy Alexander-Hills, a senior music and Earth systems major. It featured a spirited dramatic narration of Edith Sitwell's poems from Façade by Wendy Hillhouse, a professional mezzo-soprano and member of the voice faculty.

Lee emphasizes the importance of understanding the composers' intentions in contemporary music. She said, "When you know the background story, nothing sounds accidental." To that end, the musicians introduced each of the four pieces in the program to provide the listeners with some context.

Kornberg also provided a tour and demonstration of his musical mise en place, which included nine different percussion instruments. Commenting on Wicca, his solo piece, Kornberg explained that the composer, Casey Cangelosi, utilizes both metallic and drum percussion to create contrasting sections of music. But the interplay between these different sounds and the usage of the different sticks on the different instruments create music that is appealing to the audience, even if it is unfamiliar.

Since the Stanford New Ensemble's founding in 1970, faculty composers and orchestral conductors, including Jonathan Berger, Karla Lemon and Jindong Cai, have directed the group, which was originally called Alea II. Through the years, the emphasis of the ensemble has included focusing on experimental music and serving as a vehicle for graduate composers. Under the direction of Lee, the ensemble seeks to reach a broader audience by performing classical works from 1900 to the present.

Lee said, "Our goal is for contemporary music and artistic creativity to be expressed and enjoyed by all of the community. It is exciting to be in a place like Stanford where people bring so much creativity to their endeavors, in artistic fields as well as in science and engineering. The Stanford Arts Institute has been enthusiastically supporting the ensemble's new approach to the community."

Steve Sano, Department of Music chair, said he views the ensemble as a fulfillment of Harry Elam's promise to "make arts inescapable" within Stanford.

The Stanford New Ensemble's next project is well on the way. You might catch it collaborating with dancers in Arbuckle Dining Pavilion at the Graduate School of Business during lunch time, or performing in front of a contemporary painting in one of the museums on campus. Wait and see.