Nu Deco Ensemble, Jacomo Bairos conductor, performing at the Arsht Center, Miami

Pianist, composer, and producer Robert Glasper has made an art of moving with ease between jazz, hip hop, neo-soul, rock, pop, and back. Using tools as traditional as the jazz piano trio and as open-ended as the recording studio, Glasper has created an ever-changing but organic mix that is often deceptively easy-on-the-ear — yet always studded with surprising turns and details. This weekend, Glasper will be premiering his first orchestral work, a commission by the Miami-based Nu Deco Ensemble, in concerts Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the World Center in Miami Beach, FL.

(These concerts were canceled on Thursday because of coronavirus concerns.)

The restless, genre-bending Glasper was a natural choice for Nu Deco.
“Robert has been in our ‘bucket list’ collaborator from the beginning of Nu Deco,” says Nu Deco co-founder, composer and co-artistic director Sam Hyken. “I find very exciting the opportunity to add to the orchestral canon using artists that normally wouldn’t get an opportunity to do so because of just the way classical music is.”

Having had experiences in traditional symphonic orchestras, Hayken and Nu Deco co-founder, conductor, and co-artistic director Jacomo Bairos launched the ensemble five years ago as “a 21st-century chamber orchestra,” with an artistic identity built on eclectic programming and challenging the conventional borderlines of musical genres.

Nu Deco champions the work of living composers (with occasional nods to dead creators as disparate as Paul Hindemith, Alberto Ginastera, and Frank Zappa), including Hyken’s original works as well as his arrangements and “reimaginings,” often is suite form, of pop music. Again, eclecticism is the word as the choices have included artists as disparate as Bill Withers, Nina Simone, Outkast, and Daft Punk, a favorite of the collective. Meanwhile, the list of Nu Deco collaborations – including young contemporary chamber music composers such as Adam Schoenberg, Clint Needham, Chris Rogerson, and Anna Meredith but also artists and acts such as Macy Gray, Jacob Collier, Cory Henry, Ben Folds, the Colombian pop/folk/jazz group Monsieur Perine, and Cuban singer Cimafunk — speak to their open-ended approach to expanding the chamber music repertoire while trying to build a broader audience for new music.

“This concept of commissioning very high quality, multi-genre artists is something that Jacomo and I really want to make part of what we do,” says Hyken. In previous years, Nu Deco commissioned multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter and Kishi Bashi and singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou. As for Glasper, rather than suggesting a particular theme or approach, “we really did leave it up to him,” says Hyken. “I  wanted to get what he felt at the moment. It’s a very genre-bending work. It has elements from his earlier stuff, but then it has elements of hip hop and, in the second part, this more minimalist kind of Steve Reich-Terry Riley vibe that is different from anything that I’ve ever heard him do. So I feel this work is going to really show his whole artistic self.”

The program this weekend features Glasper’s premiere, a movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 5;” Terry Riley’s “In C,” and Hyken’s James Brown suite. It offers a genre-blurring new work, a nod to the European tradition (a wartime piece Prokofiev called “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.”), a classic of minimalism, and a fresh look at the legacy of the Godfather of Soul, and yet for all its apparent eclecticism, a surprising connecting thread runs through it, Hyken suggests.

“When I used to teach my class on pop composition at the University of Miami, we’d look at James Brown, and I would show them the Live at the Apollo recordings and like, literally, there’d be three 20-minute songs on one chord,” says Hyken. “He doesn’t move out of the same chord. It’s very minimalistic. And even when creating the suite, that was one of the challenges and so, there’s a very minimalistic thread that that goes through the program. The Prokofiev is the one piece that doesn’t follow that criterion, but the rest of the program is very much in this minimalistic ecosystem.”