Pasadena has long been home to great orchestras, with the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, the California Philharmonic, and Racael Worby’s MUSE/IQUE competing for the ears, hearts and wallets of Crown City music lovers.
But for the past five years, an innovative but under-noticed ensemble has also been on the local scene, with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra making a splash via its rare approach of performing without a conductor. They also play while standing, an additional move that results in the group behaving more like a string quartet or rock band than a full symphony orchestra. According to Benjamin Mitchell, the group’s founder and president, these unusual characteristics have infused Kaleidoscope with an energy and vitality that have helped it quickly stand out.
The group will be performing its latest pay-what-you-can concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Westerbeck Recital Hall at Pasadena City College.
“A conductor is in charge of tempo and musical interpretation, and that can work well if you have a great conductor and everyone wants to follow them,” says Mitchell. “But I think sometimes they’re definitely not needed and might even stifle creativity and energy. If you have someone telling you what to do and you don’t agree with their ideas it can be frustrating. In our group you can share your idea and we try it out before people discuss it and decide what to do.”
While the KCO’s debut season and the current season are being performed exclusively in Pasadena-based venues, the ensemble has attempted to establish a reputation across the Los Angeles area by playing venues as far away as Santa Monica. In addition to performing at prime spots such as the Huntington Library in San Marino, Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the LA Theater Center, the orchestra performs the vast majority of its concerts at schools, homeless shelters and hospitals, including LA Children’s Hospital, Union Rescue Mission and LA Family Housing.
While most of their shows are performed for pay-what-you-can donations, they have received extensive grant funding and pay all their musicians for every concert they perform, including the free shows. Kaleidoscope has received funds from both the city of Los Angeles and LA County, as well as a $70,000 grant from the Durfee Foundation and $250,000 from an anonymous donor. But perhaps their most impressive fundraising score came from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that drew $73,000 in donations.
“We’re entirely democratic in our approach to making decisions, and before we played concerts, we did a group vote on the orchestra’s name and Kaleidoscope won,” says Mitchell, a California native who lived extensively in Switzerland before returning to Los Angeles six years ago to start the orchestra. “I was searching online for words that had to do with Los Angeles. The city is like a kaleidoscope, with all its different facets spinning together. It’s a colorful kids’ toy that’s fun, and in terms of the color aspect, musicians sometimes talk of music in terms of colors to describe the sounds they’re hearing.”
The orchestra’s core membership consists of 22 members, although some performances have utilized up to 60 musicians, with many performers flying in for performances from their homes around the country. That loyalty stems from the energy that performing while standing and conductor-less brings to their concerts, and their fast-forming solid reputation has led Mitchell to launch a music program in a school in Culver City in addition to an international competition.
“We started a new international competition for anyone to send any piece they want to send in and perform with us,” explains Mitchell. “Close to 2,000 people submitted from 88 countries, and the deadline is Feb. 1 for this year’s. We’ll invite 12 musician finalists from all over the world to come to LA to play their piece, and we’ll pay for their airfare and housing. The finals are in May, and we’ll choose half as winners of a total $30,000 in prizes in addition to having them perform with us on their compositions next season.”
Saturday’s show will focus on female conductors, and features Kaija Sarriaho’s “Sept Pavilions”, Chiayu Hsu’s US premiere of “Taiwan Miniatures,” the world premiere of Gabriela Smith’s “Hexacorallia” and Bela Bartok’s “Divertimento.”
“A lot of people think of classical music as being solely by dead white men because it came out of Europe and in the last few hundred years. A woman wasn’t encouraged to pursue a career like composing,” says Mitchell. “We’ve been focusing mostly on living composers with the music we play, and this season more than half are female composers, and a quarter are composers of color. We really do things differently and think of how to make concerts more engaging and fun, not traditional in any way.”
The Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra performs at 7 p.m. Saturday at Westerbeck Recital Hall at Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is by pay-what-you-can donation. Call (323) 795-8001 or visit kco.la.