For Jason Lippman, a 32-year-old cellist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the choice to become a classical musician wasn't a career decision. It was simply inevitable, an impulse as natural to the Cincinnati native and self-described sports fanatic as the urge to watch his beloved Bengals hit the gridiron. Lippman began music lessons at 3 and recalls his parents "immersing" him and his brother in the works of Tchaikovsky and Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the exclusion of any pop culture stimuli. "We'd go to school and the kids would be talking about this or that song on the radio," Lippman said, "and we had no idea what they were talking about."
Were it not for his certainty at an early musical crossroads, however, Lippman might now be performing for screaming hordes on MTV's "Total Request Live" rather than wielding his bow in Walt Disney Concert Hall. In high school, Lippman's brother Jonathan and best friend, Drew Lachey, started a singing group called 98 Degrees -- a boy band that eventually went on to sell more than 10 million albums, rivaling 'N Sync for the hearts and hormones of teen girls. "At one point, my brother asked me to join," Lippman recalled. "But I knew it wasn't my thing. I had decided to be a cellist."
Of course, rare is the player who must choose between pop superstardom and a spot on the orchestra dais, even if it's for the L.A. Phil, called by New Yorker magazine "the most contemporary-minded orchestra in America." But for a generation of classical musicians that grew up navigating the Information Age's BitTorrent stream -- for whom MySpace.com and "American Idol" are as fundamental parts of daily life as roiling timpani -- orchestral music and popular culture are anything but mutually exclusive.
Symphony players have long held a reputation for being musical omnivores, but efforts to bridge the high-low cultural divide are especially conspicuous here in Los Angeles, beneath the torqued prows of Disney Hall and under the stewardship of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has helped usher in an era of emphatically modern programming featuring contemporary composers.
In that light, consider an interesting young cross-section of the L.A. Phil -- Lippman, Ben Hong, Dana Hansen, Ariana Ghez, Johnny Lee -- whose various extracurricular interests include (but aren't limited to) improvisational jazz, gangsta rap, African drumming, celebrity trivia, Dodgers games and motorcycle riding. (Anyone wanting to meet them in person can do so from January through May at Casual Fridays, a concert series programmed with classical music neophytes in mind. Orchestra members perform sans tuxedos, and the concerts are followed by informal receptions at which orchestra and audience members can mingle over cocktails.)
Fittingly, Ghez, Lee, Lippman, Hong and Hansen are among those eagerly anticipating the arrival of 26-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who is set to inherit Salonen's place at the podium as the L.A. Phil's musical director at the end of the 2008-09 season. "I can't tell you how excited this whole orchestra is," said Lee, 28. "Esa-Pekka is still young. But because Gustavo is in our age group and is this phenomenal presence on stage, he is going to bring that youthful energy and creativity and continue the good work we've done in the last 10 years."
Each one's musicianship has been honed by endless hours of practice and a borderline ecclesiastical dedication to canonical music: Orchestra members work 11 months a year, perform eight "surfaces" (that is, concerts and rehearsals) every week and practice at home for hours each day. (L.A. Phil players command salaries between $112,000 and $350,000 for their trouble.)
But according to a wave of academic discourse on the matter, players such as these have likely benefited from a generational openness to nonclassical influences including hip-hop, free jazz, show tunes and world music. "The first commandment of classical music -- Thou shalt have no other gods before me -- has gone by the by," said Robert Fink, an associate professor of musicology at UCLA. "Even people who devote their lives to classical music can't wear blinders."
'Nothing like I expected'
Speaking at a press event in London last month, Jamie Foxx recalled his first impression of the L.A. Phil's assistant principal cello player, Ben Hong, whom the Oscar-winner enlisted in August to help him "look like a cellist" while portraying a musical prodigy in the DreamWorks drama "The Soloist." The movie is based on Steve Lopez's columns in The Times about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who ended up on the streets of Los Angeles homeless and schizophrenic yet held tight to his music. Hong's playing will stand in for Foxx's on the film's soundtrack.
"The guy who shows up to show me how to play the cello is nothing like I expected," Foxx said. "I thought it would be a stiff guy. But my guy shows up on a Ninja motorcycle. He's a really fit, good-looking Asian dude, and he comes to my place with his cello strapped to his back."
Somewhat infamously, Hong, 38, does commute by motorcycle -- actually a limited edition MV Augusta F4-1000. And he's known around town for performing with an eclectic array of nonclassical performers, including L.A.'s daKah Hip Hop Orchestra and actor-comedian Taylor Negron, and is learning to play an African djembe drum in his spare time.
But it's Hong's gusto for improvisational jazz (he's learning with the help of violinist-singer-songwriter Lili Haydn) that distinguishes him most among his peers. "I've focused so much on interpreting the great composers' music for so long," said Hong, who appeared at a recent Casual Friday performance wearing a leather hoodie. "But there are moments when I want to express myself. So I'm learning to find my own voice and my own musical language through improvising."
New Yorker staff writer Alex Ross, author of "The Rest Is Noise," a history of the 20th century through its music, points out that pop music has influenced a host of modern composers, such as George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich. And like a growing number of academics, Ross feels a pop sensibility can bolster classical musicians' capacity to perform a neoclassical repertoire.
"From listening to pop, by delving into pop music techniques, musicians learn new ways of thinking about rhythm," Ross said. "In pop, people play a little ahead or behind the beat. Whereas in classical, everyone is technically playing on the same beat. Classical musicians can have a tough time when they're confronted with a piece that has a pop influence. So much 20th century music has been affected by pop, you need to know it. You can find intellectual connections. Hip-hop in particular seems to fascinate people on both sides of the divide."
Exhibit A: viola player Dana Hansen. A Cape Cod native and cum laude Harvard graduate who holds a master's degree from Juilliard, she'll fluently describe her appreciation for rapper Jay-Z's ability to alter his vocal pitch to achieve different tonalities or the polyrhythmic component of gangsta rapper 50 Cent's songs.
By her own admission, listening to hip-hop has affected the way Hansen, 28, approaches classical music. "It might be more subliminal than anything else, but to hear a rapper speaking in so many different ways, it makes you think about what music really is," she said. "I like the fact that you're talking about the same concepts in these two totally different kinds of music. It's not warring cultures. It's all connected."
'American Idol' and mix CDs
Even though he'd tell you otherwise, there's something deliciously contrarian about Philharmonic second violin player Johnny Lee's particular manner of delving into popular culture. The Cleveland-born self-described "classical music nerd" (who, like Hansen, graduated cum laude from Harvard but also studied medicine and economics before settling on music) may spend 90% of his time listening to and interpreting the classical canon. But off the clock, Lee is likely to be found on the Net (he has profiles on MySpace, Facebook and Friendster and makes a habit of reading celebrity news blogs like Defamer.com) or in front of the television ("I'm married to TiVo," he said). As well, he's just as likely to be talking pop culture with orchestra friends Lippman and Hansen.
And over the past few years, Lee, like tens of millions of others, has gotten caught up in the pop juggernaut of "American Idol." Last year he showed up wide-eyed at a taping of the singing contest, rubbing elbows with Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul courtesy of a backstage pass.
"One of the main joys of being a classical musician is to bring joy to the audience," Lee said. "I know that sounds cheesy. But we perform four times a week. And while the cheers you hear here aren't the same, it's not that dissimilar to 'American Idol.' "
Principal oboe player Ariana Ghez is a yoga enthusiast who loves to talk politics and happens to receive a steady supply of hip-hop music -- mix CDs sent by her boyfriend, who is also a principal oboist for a major orchestra she declines to identify. But the native New Yorker and Columbia University grad firmly steers conversation away from any discussion of her avocations. "To me, the most interesting dimension of what I do is what I do," said Ghez, 28.
"Playing with this orchestra is extraordinary -- really singular in terms of the level of enthusiasm -- and, dare I say it, enjoyment," she continued. "The audiences that come to our concerts tend to be a lot younger and appreciate intelligent music. I've been astounded by the mind-set here."
For his part, Salonen said he prefers to see music as a "pool of possibility" rather than viewing classical music as some kind of bastion in need of defense from low-culture influences. The L.A. Phil's modern outlook, he pointed out, has more to do with breaking down barriers than celebrating youth for its own sake. (After all, the ensemble's oldest member is 75.) Salonen took pains to place in perspective the young players' musicianship with what their Information Age-influenced worldview has added to the orchestra.
"Right now, it's mind-blowingly difficult to get a job in a top orchestra like the L.A. Philharmonic," he said. "We get hundreds of applications for every open position. And every one of them has put in tens of thousands of hours, taught by the top teachers at the top schools. What we are getting is the elite of the elite. Bottom line.
"With that said, these young people are more open-minded to all types of music than musicians a few generations back. They're very open to new music and living composers. But for them, it's all the same thing: It's music. It's not about ideology. I'm so pleased to see young kids coming into the orchestra for whom this kind of thinking is normal, natural. That might have something to do with the variety of things on their iPods."