Perhaps it's the robust string section or subtle harp melodies that draw audiences to The Ambitious Orchestra. Maybe it's the curse words, driving rhythms, and distinct absence of cummerbunds.
Part symphony, part rock mega-ensemble, The Ambitious Orchestra (TAO) is the first and perhaps the only symphonic group in the world devoted exclusively to "bringing the virtuosity back to rock and roll" (as stated on the group's Myspace.com page). Churning out original tunes covering the usual (and not-so-usual) hot topics of the genre, the 20-piece classically-trained ensemble – which includes string, wind, horn, and percussion sections – draws a mix of teen groupies, 20-something hipsters and their concerto-loving parents.
The orchestra is one of several large-scale musical projects that is trying to draw a younger, hipper generation of music lovers – dyed hair, pierced tongues, and all – to concert halls worldwide by experimenting with how an orchestra should look, sound, and relate to its listeners.
"[Traditional] orchestras aren't doing a lot to find a way to reach regular people," says Benjamin Ickies, the 26-year-old founder, conductor, and accordion player of TAO. "That's why I switched from writing classical music to writing rock songs. I want to make a connection with the audience."
Connecting with younger listeners, and not just the 35-and-over demographic typical of orchestral performances, is what modern ensembles such as Ambitious are all about. Playing in back-alley bars and nightclubs, Mr. Ickies says that his rock orchestra strives to fill the musical chasm between classical and contemporary tunes as well as the gap between the musicians on stage and the audience.
"In classical music it's all about the composer, so it's very indulgent," he says. "In rock music, there's no excuse. If you don't make a connection with your songs, it's your fault and it's your music. That's what fascinates me about rock music; it's the great equalizer."
The New York-based group isn't the only group experimenting with the conventions of orchestral music. The two turntablists, eight MCs, and 60-odd musicians (including members of the rap group Jurassic 5) of the Los Angeles-based daKAH Hip-Hop Orchestra use everything from bassoons to human beatboxes to create supersized hip-hop productions. In Eugene, Ore., The Everyone Orchestra, a collective of up to 40 musicians, ditches written music entirely and performs all-improvisational shows, incorporating the audience into its auditory antics by including them in musical improv games. On occasion, The Everyone Orchestra is augmented by special guests from bands such as the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the P-Funk Allstars.
"A big part of the focus is the conductor being a lightning rod and a facilitator for an interactive experience," says Matt Butler, the conductor of The Everyone Orchestra. The improvisational aspect of the performance creates amazing music, he adds.
Perhaps most radical of all is the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, a collective of 10 musicians who hand-make 50 to 100 instruments before each show out of – that's right – produce.
After hearing everything from traditional African pieces to experimental electronic music played on instruments such as the "radish-marimba" and the "cucumberophone," the audience is treated to a hearty soup made from the vegetable scraps that didn't make it into the orchestra itself, all prepared by a cook who plays as big a role in the performance as the musicians themselves.
"The performance isn't just sound and the visual aspect, but also taste and smell," comments Ernst Reitermaier, manager of the veggie orchestra. "It gives us an opportunity to talk to the audience after the concert, so it's also socializing and a chance to inhale the music into the body."
Though it's not exactly what Bach and Beethoven had in mind, these nouveau orchestras do have something fundamental in common with their classical predecessors in that they challenge what the audience is used to hearing – just as those composers once did.
"There's a lot of room for an orchestra to make some really interesting new sounds," comments The Ambitious Orchestra's Ickies. "I don't think the surface has been scratched in this area."
If Ickies is right, the future of orchestral music may very well rest in the hands of the generation that made The Pixies and The Roots popular and audiences can expect upcoming large-scale ensembles to look cooler, sound fresher, and – if they're lucky – whet even more musical palates than Mozart himself.