New musical ensemble helps Barnes Foundation mark fifth year in Philly

Robert Whalen is both conductor and co-creator of the Barnes Ensemble with his wife Katherine Skovira.

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A man with a mic in the foreground, middle-school musicians stand on a stage in the background

Robert Whalen and the Barnes Ensemble, at the Barnes Foundation, introduces the dissonant music of György Ligeti to middle-school students. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

It has been five years since the Barnes Foundation moved its art galleries from Lower Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. This week, to mark the occasion, it is debuting its in-house music group, the Barnes Ensemble.

It’s a relatively small launch for the Barnes Ensemble; right now, it consists of 20 musicians, all of them string players, presenting modern chamber music. It will be scaled up in the coming months. As an extension of the Barnes’ Foundation education mission, this week the players are performing concerts, teaching classes, and doing workshops with about 1,000 students in the region.

On Wednesday, about 250 middle-school children came to the Barnes atrium to hear the ensemble play György Ligeti’s “Ramifications,” an 8-minute dissonant piece that the group spent an hour unpacking for the benefit of the 12-year-olds.

“What do you think Ligeti meant by what he was writing? Why would he write this?” asked conductor Robert Whalen, addressing the students. “Did you happen to see what year this piece was written? 1968. Do we know what happened in 1968? Martin Luther King was assassinated that year.”

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Later, Whalen said the kids were not too young to grasp the dark nuances of modern classical music.

“The essential kernel of Ligeti is dealing with conflict, and what 12-year-old hasn’t had to deal with that?” he said. “I believe children are incredibly sophisticated. The conceptual core of it is very direct. Once we got over the hurdle of the complicated musical elements, I think they really resonated with it.”

Whalen is both conductor and co-creator of the Barnes Ensemble with his wife Katherine Skovira. Two years ago, as doctoral students, they visited the Barnes Foundation together for the first time and realized their ideas about modern music reverberated with Barnes’ century-old ideas about modern art.

“Line, light, color, and space is how he thought of his artwork, and how he would teach people,” said Skovira. “In terms of how we think about music, it’s all parallel.”

Sometimes modern art — in any form — can evade interpretation; it’s just splashes of color on canvas or just squeaks from a violin string. Even Albert Barnes, himself, was left scratching his head when his friend William Glackens returned from France in 1912 with a cargo of avant-garde paintings.

“I read conscientiously practically every book on art that has been published during the last few years in an effort to find out what is a good painting,” Barnes wrote in 1914. “What was the mind behind the painting, what broad principle of psychology would explain those paintings which appealed to me.”

For Barnes, art was something that had to be learned. “Once he did, it transformed his perspective,” said Whalen. “He became an advocate for these works.”

The foundation had been looking for a new curator of public programming, a person — a single person — responsible for lectures, film screenings, theater performances, etc.

When Whalen and Skovira applied for the position, as a duo, with a vision of an in-house orchestra, the foundation was thrown for a loop. Museums don’t normally have their own musical ensembles.

“We typically work with partners to bring in different musical groups or theater performances,” said Martha Lucy, Barnes deputy director of research and education. “This was something where they were going to be creating their own ensemble. This is an organic, Barnes-created musical group. It’s exciting, but it’s definitely been a huge project with a lot of heavy lifting.”

At its core, the Barnes Ensemble begins with a respected, pre-existing group, the Jack Quartet. Through them, Whalen and Skovira hired more musicians from around the world to fill out the ensemble. “We’ve been so thrilled with how everybody dove in,” said Skovira. “These people love contemporary music. They see it as something crucial to the art form.”

The ensemble has been performing around Philadelphia this week, with its official debut at the Barnes Foundation on Sunday. Another music festival with an expanded ensemble is planned for early next year.

Until then, Whalen and Skovira will be rolling up their sleeves for the day-to-day programming at the foundation.

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