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Interlochen Public Radio Launches Musical Social Experiment

Matthew Schlomer

The pandemic disrupted how we work, interact and entertain ourselves. While offices and restaurants have reopened, classical musicians are still waiting to see what concerts and their careers will look like in the future. This summer, Interlochen Public Radio is exploring that question and reimagining what the classical music concert experience can be.

The Sound Garden is planting classical music in unexpected locations. Each week, IPR’s Artist-in-Residence Mei Stone will perform in unusual locations around Northwest Lower Michigan to experiment with the performer-audience relationship. Every week, Mei, a professional flutist and graduate of The Juilliard School, will perform short pieces in nontraditional settings, challenging the boundaries of where and to whom classical music belongs. The goal is to engage directly with audiences throughout a performance, rather than expecting the audience to leave their comfort zone and come to the performer.

“Classical music is an amazing art form,” says Mei, “but outside of the concert hall, we never really get to hear it. It’s such a niche part of society, and it sometimes feels unapproachable or unrelatable from the outside. We want to reexamine how to reach audiences that haven’t discovered its potential, or feel like they can’t or aren’t allowed to.”

The Sound Garden’s first week explored reflection, growth, and restoration as the nation emerges from a pandemic. To begin the project, Mei performed Caprice No. 6 by Niccolò Paganini in Kresge Auditorium to an audience of 3,929 empty seats.

Mei Stone in Kresge Auditorium

“That’s pretty much what it has been like for 18 months--just me in my practice room,” she says.

Next, she brought the piece to The Greenspire School on the students’ last week of classes; Mei was the first and only guest allowed in the building all year.

“Imagine the energy of middle schoolers in their last days before summer break,” says Matthew Schlomer, Interlochen conductor and cofounder of The Sound Garden project. “When Mei started playing, the entire room transformed from boisterous interaction to focused reflection. It was remarkable.”

Finally, Mei brought the Paganini to a Yen Yoga class in Traverse City’s historic Cathedral Barn.

“Yoga is the perfect place for this week’s theme,” Mei explains. “Yoga is about introspection and both accepting and radiating positive energy. Somehow, it was new and a bit relieving to be somewhere between background and foreground music. The audience was actively and intentionally letting in the music, but the main focus was internal for each person, rather than them focusing only on the performer.”

The Sound Garden will continue throughout this summer, exploring themes like nature, love, and the human experience and challenging classical music’s role in society. It will climax at the end of July with performances by an entire woodwind quintet.

“We are bringing together a ‘dream-team’ ensemble of Interlochen alumni in their early professional careers,” Matthew says. “Their ambition is to reach out to the community in unexpected places and formats, hopefully to discover how we listen and artistically interact after the pandemic.”

Listeners can tune into IPR News Radio on Saturday mornings during Weekend Edition to hear about recent musical adventures. To learn more about the project go to interlochenpublicradio.org.