After being given free rein to create a concert series of his own, Spokane Symphony concertmaster and first violinist Mateusz Wolski decided to turn everything audiences know about classical music, and classical musicians, for that matter, on its head.
At “The M Show: Music, Mayhem and Mystery,” he’s taken away the “penguin suits” and brought in, for one segment, for example, snow gloves.
And though the ensemble will still perform a classical repertoire, there will be more than a few surprises thrown in.
Wolski presents “The M Show” on Friday and Saturday at the Washington Cracker Co. Building.
The second installment of “The M Show” will be held May 24-25 at a to-be-determined location.
Music director Eckart Preu and general manager Dan Cotter approached Wolski with the opportunity to create his own concertmaster series.
“I said ‘I don’t tell you anything. I just would like you to do a series because you are a fairly well-known and beloved member of the orchestra,’ ” Preu said. “And he’s a wonderful musician.”
Wolski was flattered by the offer and began to brainstorm.
“It started with me thinking of us being unsupervised and then I was like ‘OK, if I don’t have a conductor, then what could I do that’ll be fun?’ ”
He began to think about the concert series from a business perspective: “What are we already selling?”
After considering the Classics and Pops series, special events like “Star Wars”- and “Harry Potter”-themed concerts, Chamber Soiree concerts and the string quartet he performs with, Wolski decided that “whatever I’m going to come up in a normal way is going to, one way or another, be filling yet another shade of gray.”
He then realized he could incorporate one of his non-musical talents, telling jokes, into the show.
Furthering his idea to look at classical music and musicians through a humorous lens, Wolski decided to pre-record videos that he could then incorporate into the concert, making the performance feel like a late night show.
“There’s very few instances where you have a virtuoso put into a context of a comedy and maintain their performance while being funny,” Wolski said. “It’s a tall order for all of us but is something that I found very much worthy of pursuing and tremendously enjoyable.”
Wolski recruited principal trombonist Ross Holcombe and trumpet player Eric Moe to help with the pre-recorded videos.
Both Holcombe and Moe had participated in promotional videos for the symphony in the past, but Wolski also wanted to use “The M Show” as a means of getting musicians who don’t usually work together to collaborate.
“The funny thing is we were not really talking before this project,” Wolski said. “We’ve been playing but besides casual ‘Hey, how are you?,’ that was it. All of a sudden, we’re being thrown into challenges and we’re becoming friends as this progresses.”
In recent months, the trio has embarked on a series of challenges, inspired by the challenges on the British car show “Top Gear,” to answer questions like “Who plays the manliest instrument?” and “How will inhaling helium affect a musician’s ability to play a note?”
To answer the first question, Wolski, Holcombe and Moe trekked to Manito Park for a “snow challenge.”
After burying their brass instruments in the snow, Holcombe and Moe tried to hit a certain note on their now-icy trombone and trumpet.
Since Wolski couldn’t put his violin in the snow, Moe and Holcombe decided to even the playing field by shoving Wolski’s bare hands into the snow.
“Somehow due to technical difficulties, I was stuck in the snow for about four minutes so by the time I took my hands out, from my palm on, I couldn’t feel a thing,” Wolski said. “You could pinprick me, and I would not know you did it.”
In another challenge, the trio hit River Park Square to see who could earn the most money while busking.
The winner of the busking challenge will be revealed at “The M Show,” though Wolski is also considering setting up cases at the show so audience members can help their favorite musician with a last-minute donation.
“The idea for me is that we always have a segue,” Wolski said. “We have a video of some sort. It translates directly. In terms of our busking challenge, we proceed to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ Very virtuosic, so we can see who can keep up with whom and how fast can we play it.”
Without giving too much away, audiences can expect to hear a mix of classical pieces, movie themes and even a little rock ‘n’ roll at “The M Show.”
To help create the odd-ball arrangements, Wolski turned to David Armstron, assistant principal second violinist .
“ ‘How about we make an arrangement that I want to add extra instruments that don’t belong into a song and make it work in the piece?’ ” Wolski said, before talking about the comical arrangement of Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” Armstrong wrote for the show. “It’s written as if Mozart intended it and for people who actually know the repertoire, them just listening to that one arrangement, (they’ll) be losing their stuff because you have one piece that has about 10 musical jokes.”
Wolski brought “The M Show” to the Washington Cracker Co. building, home of Terrain, because he wanted to make it a more intimate experience.
Helping to achieve that feeling, three cameras will record the action, with some footage being shown in real time on screens.
Wolski said that unless an audience member is seated in the front row of a concert hall, it’s unlikely they will be able to take in what he calls, for string players, the “muscle Olympics.”
“The only thing you can see is bows moving but it’s machinery under the hood,” he said. “I wanted to pop the hood open and walk you through how the tiniest little screw in the engine of the orchestra looks like and what it does and how it does things, what it sounds when it breaks.”
Preu said he has no idea what Wolski has up his sleeve, but he’s excited to see it and hopes “The M Show” becomes a regular part of the symphony’s season.
“Mateusz took it to a very different place than I thought he would,” he said. “He is one of those rare breeds where they’re not only wonderful, fantastic musicians, but they have also a wonderful sense of humor and an interest in reaching a different part of the population than we usually do.”
Wolski hopes the humor behind “The M Show” will attract both seasoned classical fans and those who have only heard classical music in commercials and films.
He knows some of those in the audience who haven’t been exposed to much classical music will walk away simply having had a good laugh, but his hope is that “The M Show” inspires people to further explore the genre and maybe attend a symphony performance at the Fox.
“At the end of the day, in some ways, that’s really my hope. Bring joy to people, on one hand. On the other hand, tell them something about stuff that I do that I love as well as my friends on the stage,” he said. “There has to be a reason why we love it, so I want people to discover that reason for themselves.”
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