Taking classical music out of the concert hall

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Tom Pike directs his Vintage Parlor Orchestra. Courtesy photo.

Based in Grand Rapids, Thomas Pike, creator, composer, and artistic director of The Vintage Parlor Orchestra is on a mission to “take classical music out of the traditional concert hall, and into the community.” Pike’s vision for Vintage Parlor Orchestra is proof that by packing chamber and orchestral music into breweries, movie theaters, art galleries, parks, garages, decks, and living rooms everywhere, we can transform how the masterpieces of the last few centuries are experienced. What many may have envisioned as an art form reserved for the elite few, Pike is making accessible to everyone, everywhere. Through his collaboration with local talented musicians, he is redefining how we see and experience classical music. Check out the emsemble’s upcoming performance at Creston Brewery’s Golden Age event space at 1504 Plainfield Ave NE, Grand Rapids on Nov. 17 from 7 – 9:30 pm.

This unique, versatile, and talented Grand Rapids based ensemble began in 2018 as a Halloween show at Paddock Place off Lake Drive. Decked out with Halloween decorations in a macabre atmosphere, while actors roamed throughout the house, 12 musicians, in full makeup, played, and absolutely loved it. From there, the orchestra grew from 12, to 20, to 30 members, becoming what is now a full chamber orchestra. As the number of musicians expanded, so did Pike’s ability to arrange for a broader classical chamber works repertoire. 

One of those arrangements was going to include Dame Ethel Smyth’s Suite for Strings, Op. 1a at a show scheduled for September that was canceled due to Covid. Emily Peterson, a lifelong lover of music, who is passionate about bringing women’s music to the forefront was on the bill as the would-be conductor of the piece. A lover of Ethel Smyth in particular, Peterson describes the composer as a “spitfire in terms of music composition, well known for spearheading women’s rights in the 1920s.” 

Truly, Dame Ethel Smyth is one of the most accomplished female composers in a male dominated space, and a well-recognized representative in the suffragette movement. From 1911 to 1913 Smyth gave up music and devoted herself to the British suffragette movement, she served two months in Holloway prison. When her friend, Thomas Beachum paid her a visit there, he found her conducting with a toothbrush the “March of the Women” sung by fellow suffragettes.

“After attending a show at Creston Brewery in 2019, where the audience was invited to sit around the orchestra, I found myself sitting cross legged on the floor at the feet of a cellist, and felt such joy,” Peterson said. “I asked Tom to keep me in mind if he ever needed a vocalist, and he actually called me! My debut with Vintage Parlor Orchestra was in 2020 where I wore a gown and sang from Mozart’s Magic Flute Opera at the ‘Listening Room’ (now “Midtown Gr”). Singing in front of an Orchestra is every vocalist’s dream. You don’t imagine singing with an orchestra and wearing a gown when you’re studying music therapy. Even for a church performance they’ll usually reach out to, say, U of M, rather than source musicians and vocalists locally. It’s really special to have someone like Tom who is so dedicated to the community and local musicians. Even during Covid, Tom persisted.”

“I view Tom as my personal Willy Wonka: ‘Want to sing? Want to conduct?’ He has been a wonderful friend and creative partner with a healthy distrust of elitism and academia, making arts more accessible and fun. We both enjoy being the ‘alt symphony’.”

Peterson, a board-certified music therapist and music educator serving west Michigan, may be new to conducting but she is no stranger to Vintage Parlor orchestra, having been one of the more dedicated members of the group, where she has now performed as a vocal soloist singing soprano for several performances. 

“In the theme of experimentation and opening up opportunities for local musicians to try things they might not have an opportunity to do anywhere else, I thought it would be cool to invite Emily to take over the baton and conduct, as woman composers often tend to get left by the wayside,” said Pike.  

While the direction of the orchestra has changed some since 2018, moving from a Halloween theme to performing in breweries, at Pike’s garage during Covid, outdoors in parks, and at art galleries, his mission to perform everywhere but the concert hall, moving from a stuffy atmosphere to performing masterworks somewhere where the audience can relax, and have a beer has remained constant.

Pike’s approach in rethinking what the classical music experience can be transforms and redefines the classical music genre into something more exciting, not so stiff. Distinctive in that the audience can interact with the musicians and have a beer while listening, we are able to enjoy classical music in a way not thought of before. The audience is encouraged to move around, sit cross legged on the floor, or on the podium while he conducts. A much different atmosphere from sitting upright while stuffed into a crowded concert hall, shackled to your seat. Audience interaction, clapping while the musicians play, clapping between movements with the occasional “hell yeah” (behavior liable to get you ejected from the normal symphonic venue) is not only welcomed, it is appreciated by this eccentric orchestra. 

“To a lot of people, going to a concert hall, dressing up, sitting in a long row of seats, unable to move around or have a drink, is a barrier. There’s parking to consider, and crowds to navigate. During our show, it has more of a rock band feel. Come as you are, don’t worry about what to wear, whether to sit down, stand, use the bathroom, or get a drink at any time during the concert. All of this is available at our performance. The whole point of getting the music out of the concert hall is to expose more people to this music in a new way,” said Pike.

Vintage Parlor Orchestra pushes the boundaries of what classical music can be. In one event, the audience was asked to stand up and get as close as they possibly can to the orchestra, so the audience can feel what the conductor feels, and enjoy being totally immersed, surrounded and transported by the colors and tones of music so powerful it has survived for centuries.

As a musician, Pike has a background playing in rock bands throughout the Grand Rapids area and has managed to incorporate his showmanship and performance abilities with the beauty of orchestral music. Halfway through the performance, Pike often has a ‘game show’ style challenge, inspired by the Jimmy Fallon orchestra, where he does a ‘random instrument challenge’ where a guest from the audience tries different instruments, and attempts to play a song. The audience then tries to guess what song is being played. Inclusive, educational, engaging but most of all: FUN! Pike is mixing up the music scene.

While the atmosphere may be relaxed, and fun, and utterly entertaining, the skill level of the musicians, and Pike’s ability to arrange and conduct, delivers a high level, well balanced musical experience that is undeniable. The orchestra is populated primarily by musicians from other area west Michigan orchestras, music directors, and college level musicians from MSU and Grand Valley, as well as talented vocalists assembled as a local collective. This dedicated lot of local musicians are provided with an opportunity to perform in a way and at a venue they would be unable to replicate anywhere else. 

While the musicians may dress down in street clothes rather than traditional performance black or tuxedoes, they perform with a passion and precision one would expect from an accomplished professional symphony. The audience enjoys the sound of a professional symphony, without the high cost and hassle that comes with a more established, traditional symphonic orchestra. Pike’s unusual, unique approach is classical music for the new millennium.

A “disgruntled classical music audience member turned conductor,” Pike, describes The Vintage Parlor Orchestra as a “nomadic classical musical ensemble” the membership of which he has managed to bend to various venues and events. Pike is passionately pioneering a mission to make classical music rowdy again. He views the orchestra as a rock band but with symphonic music, and violins, instead of electric guitars.

“Classical music can be done differently and should be done differently. Whereas Europe has embraced this form of art, the US hasn’t quite caught on yet,” said Pike. He is determined to change all that. Where a traditional symphony has a board to delegate responsibilities, Pike does it all, which allows him to experiment and create, while arranging, composing, and corralling a variety of musicians for each unique performance.  From a ‘quirky little Halloween band’ playing at Paddock place, Pike has vaulted the Vintage Parlor Orchestra to an immersive experience with a growing following, playing at Founders, the Listening Room and most recently, at Creston Brewery. If you’d like to eat, show up early and you may have the opportunity to say, “hello” while dining, especially at Creston Brewery, where Pike is huge fan of their Creston Brewery’s fish and chips.

For more information and to explore an exciting and entirely new way to take in classical music, check out The Vintage Parlor Orchestra’s upcoming performance on Friday, November 17th from 7 PM – 9:30 PM at Creston Brewery. For more information go to: vpogr.com or follow Vintage Parlor Orchestra
on Facebook. 

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