David Chesky Scores His Second IMA Award

The most refreshing music I encountered at the huge 2015 Munich High End Show was an excerpt from David Chesky’s children’s ballet, The Zephyrtine, which Paul McGowan played in the PS Audio room. Hence it comes as no surprise that another of Chesky’s recordings, his Rap Symphony, has just won the Independent Music Award (IMA) for Best Contemporary Classical Album.

While Chesky’s Rap Symphony CD contains five pieces—Rap Symphony, Street Beats, and Central Park Dances Nos.1, 2, and 3— it is the 20-minute Rap Symphony that undoubtedly attracted the most attention from the judges. You can find the superbly edited and choreographed YouTube video version, performed by rappers Mike Two and Leper and the Orchestra of the 21st Century, here. Although this video is not what was submitted to the contemporary classical experts who judged the category, it’s doubtful that any judges who came across it on YouTube watched unmoved.

This is actually the second time that Chesky has won an IMA. The first came in 2013, when he received an award for his Chesky album, String Theory.

The win is most impressive, given that Chesky’s competition included albums of music by Osmo Tapio Räihäla, Ingram Marshall, Christopher Tin, and RighteousGIRLS, who have built considerable reputations in the classical/crossover/new music communities. Nor was the honor awarded by a group of nobodies. Among the judges, who were assigned according to their fields of expertise, were Suzanne Vega, Shelby Lynne, Jane Monheit, Lila Downes, Judy Collins, Arturo Sandoval, Jason Olaine (Program Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center), Sara Beesley (Director of Programming at Wolf Trap), and Bob Ludwig (Mastering Engineer and former classical trumpet player).

Reached in New York City, where he is hard at work on his new Kickstarter Project to raise funds to animate his children’s opera, The Mice War, Chesky admitted that he didn’t even know that HDTracks’ Laura Cella had submitted the album for the award.

“Here’s the thing,” Chesky told Stereophile with classic New York City directness. “Art reflects time and culture. I don’t live in the beautiful Puget Sound looking at the still waters and the Olympic Mountains. I live in the middle of the city.

“The metaphor of our city when you get into a subway is, ‘Yo, get the fuck outa my face!’ You can feel it, you know. What I wanted to do is capture this, but not in a simplistic way. Rather, I wanted to elevate folkloric rap and fuse it with symphonic elements. Basically, the words are really about the depth of what’s happening in our society. The Rap Symphony is saying that basically we don’t believe in high art anymore. Everything is being destroyed for the sake of capitalism.

“That’s the poetic side. The music side is to have this rage, this anger, this very intense rhythmic energy that captures what it’s like to be in New York City. Imagine yourself in August, you’re in the subway, and people are irritable. There’s a piece to this city, everyone’s in a hurry, there’s an edge, it’s about money… I’ve tried to synthesize this and convert it into a symphonic form.

“I know a lot of people in the symphony world don’t like to hear this, but things have to change. This is a conscious, organic experiment to make an aural collage of New York City. It’s putting a mirror up to contemporary times. As much as I love Mozart—I listen to parts of his final Requiem almost every day, as well as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and all the Bach stuff because it transcends time and culture and could have been written today—his music was written for a King sitting on a throne 300 years ago and 6000 miles away. It’s not our culture.”

Chesky did not initially write the music with a video component in mind. Ever the evangelist, as well as the father of children he’s raising amidst New York’s asphalt jungle, he decided to take the next step.

“I thought that since the younger world lives on YouTube, it would be nice to bring them into it,” he says. “After the work was created, I asked, ‘How can I get the next generation of people into the orchestra world?’ I think this could be a bridge. When the kids see the video and hear the rappers, whom they can identify with, all of a sudden they’re exposed to an orchestra. Maybe that makes them curious enough to walk into a concert hall.”

Chesky acknowledges that his children’s opera, The Mice War, also has a political component. “I wrote it because I’m tired of war. As a parent, I worry about the future of my kids. Maybe the next generation will see this opera and say, ‘Let’s just not do this anymore. In war, there are no winners.’

“I say it in a really funny way with mice and cheese. Kids love it and they get it. That’s why I want the animation: To take it to the next level. There’s a universality to the opera’s message. We have to stop warring; we’ve learned nothing.”

But here as well, Chesky hopes that his chamber opera will expose kids to classical music and help perpetuate the art form. The opera has already been performed by Orchestra Miami and the Florida Grand Opera, been seen “in a million places all over Poland in big theaters, sometimes produced by Krzysztof Penderecki’s wife Elisabeth,” in Asia at the National Theatre in Taiwan, and in New York’s famed Barge Chamber Music Festival.

“Kids live in a media age on iPads, iPhones, and TVs,” he says. “If I can make this into a cartoon, then it’s one more tool to get kids involved in classical music. It’s about the next generation. What’s going to happen in 25 years? With the Mice War at least we have a shot. With classical music, we have a chance to reach a young audience. By 8 or 9, they’re already listening to rap and all that and it’s too late. I want to get these kids at 4 years, so they tell their parents they had a great time and ask to either go to the concert hall or maybe play the violin. It’s what Disney did with Fantasia. Since the schools don’t teach kids about classical music, I’m going to do it.”

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