Miami’s Nu Deco Ensemble, which calls itself “a 21st century chamber orchestra,” mixes new classical composers with Radiohead, Daft Punk and, this January, Frank Zappa

This piece was posted on the Knight Foundation blog  in January 2017

At the Dranoff 2 and Nu Deco Ensemble concert at New World Center in Miami Beach on Sunday, solemnity lasted a few bars — just enough for the orchestra to unpack the famous theme of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor,” and turn the piece into “Tocatta y Fuga en Re Minor,” as the program titled it. The arrangement by composer Sam Hyken, co-founder and co-artistic director of Nu Deco, quickly put Bach in the Caribbean, swaying in clave and leaving room for congas and a timbales solo — and off we were.

The collaboration between the 29-year-old Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation and the upstart Nu Deco Ensemble, a Knight Arts Challenge winner, could not have begun much better. The evening featured terrific performances by the piano duo Yoo + Kim (Jackie Jaekyung Yoo and Yoon-Jee Kim), winners of the 2013 Dranoff International 2 Piano competition in Miami, including the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” and the premiere of “Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra” by Swedish composer Fredrik Sixten, who was in attendance. The program also featured the ensemble at its best, playing music by Steve Reich, Jessie Montgomery, Radiohead, Bach and Frank Zappa. Better yet, it all played before an enthusiastic and diverse sold-out audience.

“A little over a year ago, Carlene Sawyer, the executive director of the Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation, reached out to us and wanted to know is there something that we can do in Miami to shake things up, [something] that blends a little bit of the classical world and a little bit of the new musical world that’s out there,” conductor Jacomo Bairos, Nu Deco’s co-founder and co-artistic director, explained from the podium. “And we thought, Why not do a concert and be in partnership in the future?

Later in the evening, Hyken announced that Nu Deco Ensemble will serve as the competition orchestra for the next round of the Dranoff competition in December and that, as part of that competition, the Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation will commission composer Adam Schoenberg to create a new work for two pianos and orchestra.

One of the challenges for classical music to reach new audiences has been overcoming the canonization of the repertoire and the listening experience. Barely in its second season, Nu Deco Ensemble has made remarkable inroads in the fickle South Florida music market in part by opening the repertoire to new composers, reaching into other musical genres to better connect with new audiences and offering loose-limbed performances in a variety of settings (such as the North Beach Bandshell and the Deering Estate). It’s an approach that, while not entirely new, has been smartly and consistently executed.

There is often something didactic about Nu Deco’s programs but, cleverly, it’s always wrapped in a sense of humor and a fun, “Why not?” attitude. Bach-goes-salsa might sound like pop orchestra territory — amusing, but probably not fully satisfying to either audience. But programming Hyken’s reworking of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” the source material for Reich’s 2012 “Radio Rewrite,” was a smart setup for Reich’s stylized abstractions. And if challenging the established norms is part of Nu Deco’s mission, they couldn’t have chosen a better patron saint than Zappa, who not only thumbed his nose at classical conventions but also ridiculed rock’s rituals and faux revolutionary aesthetics.

Zappa’s writing demands not only virtuoso technique (from the devilish rhythmic turns to the unusual orchestral groupings), but also a daring attitude and a sense of humor. One passage may start suggesting quirky cartoon music then take a left turn and evoke, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, a romantic landscape before moving on to some Middle Eastern-flavored interlude and fade into a pop ditty. A moment later, Zappa might offer a sweeping melody that gets brusquely cut down to size by a marimba seemingly mocking it from the back of the ensemble. Very little, if anything, provides players or listeners with comfortable, expected resolutions.

Throughout, Nu Deco’s playing — be it on the suite from Zappa’s landmark 1993 album, “The Yellow Shark,” or his irresistible “Peaches in Regalia”— sounded not only true to the notes on the page but to the spirit of the music.

Watching the excellent duo Yoo + Kim going from Rachmaninoff or the knotty Sixten to sitting in with the ensemble to play Reich, Zappa and a Daft Punk encore lent an indelible image to Zappa’s quote in the program notes: “ … it didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim … or Webern or Varese or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.”

Forget labels. Sunday, it was all good music.