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Are classical recitals morphing to suit our playlist attention span?

Piano recital? Or playlist? That line is blurring all over the classical music world.

Violinist Jennifer Koh had plenty of solo opportunities during the Princeton Symphony Orchestra's 22-minute performance of Anna Clyne's "The Seamstress" for violin and orchestra.
Violinist Jennifer Koh had plenty of solo opportunities during the Princeton Symphony Orchestra's 22-minute performance of Anna Clyne's "The Seamstress" for violin and orchestra.Read moreJÜRGEN FRANK

Piano recital? Or playlist?

That line is blurring all over the classical music world, but especially in a trio of Philadelphia Chamber Music Society programs where music that is old, new, experimental, and mainstream are heard in ways that were previously inconceivable.

“It’s not a gimmicky thing. It’s not about trying to find cool sequences,” said pianist David Greilsammer, whose Thursday recital had 27 sections, spanning centuries from C.P.E. Bach to John Cage to Philip Glass, even splitting Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor into two sections and played in different parts of the concert. “It’s finding a dialogue between the works ... and a different kind of meaning that would relate to our current world.”

No intermission, just one continuous flow. That kind of sweep is even more apparent in Jennifer Koh’s Nov. 23 concert: With pianist Thomas Sauer, Beethoven’s three Op. 30 violin sonatas will be interspersed between new works by the acclaimed American composer Andrew Norman. They start in the key where Beethoven leaves off and conclude in the opening key of the next Beethoven sonata. Appropriately, the titles of the Norman pieces are Bridging I, II, and III. “I never think of it as breaking from the past,” said Koh, “but a thread from the past.”

They are seasoned, thoughtful musicians in their mid-40s who have long believed that the concentration and self-questioning that comes with modern music can shake both performers and listeners out of the pleasurable rut of thinking a Beethoven sonata has been fully fathomed over dozens of encounters.

The PCMS season’s great unknown is the Jan. 6 recital by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, cofounder of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who developed “This is America” — 20 new works for solo violin by composers including Rhiannon Giddens, Tyshawn Sorey, and Conrad Tao. The fact that it was commissioned by 20 presenters specifically in response to events of the past 12 to 18 months is evidence of how much alternative recitals are being embraced by the classical music establishment.

Koh says her “Bach and Beyond” project — in which she juxtaposed the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach with new works by Kaija Saariaho and Missy Mazzoli — took 10 years to bring to fruition. Her current Beethoven project took roughly four years. That’s progress — and no doubt helped by her reputation as a charismatic violinist with a mission and one who doesn’t take no for an answer.

“The tradition of Western classical music, of course, started in Europe. But every time we go into a community ... the question is, who are we servicing? Who do we represent?” she said. “It’s a tragedy if we don’t hear the stories of people who are like us. It’s our loss.”

More typical chamber programs with three major pieces arranged according to their chronology are still very much alive. Song cycles, which are excerpted more and more these days, are still being sung completely. Chrystal E. Williams sings Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben on Dec. 17, even though that cycle can be seen in some quarters as the epitome of retro-patriarchy culture. Greilsammer has plenty of Mozart piano concertos in his repertoire. But a society increasingly dominated by technology can’t help but take on a different tempo. “Everything is faster ... fragmented ... quick,” said Greilsammer.

However much the programs might resemble the work of Spotify algorithms, it’s all creative intuition — at first. Every time a sequence of pieces click into place, Greilsammer’s final test is finding a way to explain it in words. After all, listeners in concert — in comparison with recordings — are more captive and are owed that level of integrity.

Koh can rest easy in knowing her program has built-in cohesiveness with its key signature connection. But Greilsammer is having to work a bit harder. His program is somewhat based on his Labyrinth album, released by the Naive label, but significantly transformed by a healthy mixture of Glass’ “Metamorphosis” pieces, inspired by the Franz Kafka novella of the same title. The Greilsammer recital is, in fact, part of the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Society, which houses the hall where his recital takes place, and whose members include composer Glass.

Along the way, Greilsammer is able to accommodate pieces that might be called orphans and mavericks, pieces such as Satie’s Gnossienne and Scriabin’s Vers la flamme that are too short or quirky for a typical concert program but are works that he has loved for years.

Amid gains in programs of this sort, there are bound to be losses. And the most obvious one with Greilsammer is the traditional intermission, which is falling by the wayside anyway in shorter post-lockdown concerts. And that’s just fine with him: “We’re tired of intermissions. We want to cut the crap and play the recital. Sixty minutes is enough.”

Information for all PCMS recitals can be found at or 215-569-8080. Tickets range from $20-$30. Both the Greilsammer and Gandelsman concerts will be livestreamed.