Occasionally, you see or hear something that blows your mind. Last night (August 13), the Nu Deco Ensemble at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) was exactly that. As part of the intimate world music concert series “SPAC on Stage,” during which the audience literally gets to sit onstage during the performance, the Miami-based group made their New York debut with an evening of fiery, captivating and refreshingly original music. In fact, it wasn’t just the ensemble’s first performance here in the Empire State—it was also their first concert outside of Florida. (saratoga living and Putnam Place were presenting sponsors for the event).
Founded in 2013 by conductor Jacomo Bairos and composer/arranger Sam Hyken, the group of eclectic and virtuosic musicians is billed as a 21st century chamber orchestra, not only playing contemporary classical music, but also adding instrumentation that you normally wouldn’t hear in an orchestra such as a rhythm section, electric guitar and even electronics and digital sound effects. Bairos and Hyken met back in 2004 while they were both auditioning for the Singapore Symphony, and the pair quickly found out that they shared a creative curiosity about the future of classical music: What it would sound like, and what its orchestras would look like.
Thus, the Nu Deco Ensemble was born. From the start, Bairos and Hyken had two main goals in mind for the orchestra: reinvention and collaboration. “The Nu Deco ensemble is all about mixing genres,” said Bairos. “It’s nothing new. Gershwin did it, and everyone thought he was crazy—until they heard ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Even Brahms did it with his ‘Hungarian Dances.’ He took music off the streets.” You needn’t more proof of this than the program the ensemble played last night at SPAC. The show opened with a couple of classical music staples, including Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” which was arranged, or better yet, reimagined, with bongos, a horn section and other percussion instruments to give the Baroque classic a Cuban flair, an homage to the ensemble’s Miami roots. Nu Deco then moved on to some original compositions, including several breathtaking pieces by New York City-based composer and virtuoso percussionist Andy Akiho, including one entitled to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, based on the time Akiho was mugged as a student in Harlem. Akiho’s music wasn’t just featured in the program; the composer was literally there onstage with the orchestra giving the most dazzling display of steel pan playing I’ve ever seen. (It’s not very common to see classical composers performing their own work in concert). To close out the night, the Ensemble performed two original orchestral suites, one based on a medley of the most popular songs by hip-hop duo OutKast and the other inspired by Daft Punk’s hit album Random Access Memories.
I’m a classically trained musician, and it’s my favorite genre of music, but, if I’m being honest, going to see it played live can sometimes feel a bit stuffy. (No offense, of course, meant to the Philadelphia Orchestra.) However, I’ve never attended a classical music concert where the conductor encouraged the audience to dance and even take photos. “We want you to have a good time,” Bairos reminded the audience with a smile. And boy did we ever! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much chair-dancing (especially during the Daft Punk suite) in my entire life. Next time you’re in Miami, go see the Nu Deco Ensemble. You won’t be disappointed.