Who says classical music has to be a formal affair? Not PROJECT Trio, a classical chamber ensemble fueled by the sounds of rock 'n' roll, hip-hop and jazz, from Guns ‘N Roses to Duke Ellington.
With some 66 million hits on YouTube, appearances on Nickelodeon and MTV and gigs in major concert halls, coffeehouses, clubs and classrooms around the world, this Brooklyn-based ensemble — Greg Pattillo on flute, cellist Eric Stephenson and Peter Seymour on bass — has electrified audiences of all ages with its virtuosity and wild enthusiasm for making music.
Local audiences can catch PROJECT Trio in the first of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's 2012 Family Concerts at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, with guest conductor Jacomo Bairos.
The program, designed especially for younger children, will also feature a pre-concert instrument “petting zoo” and other activities at 1 p.m.
“The petting zoo is a wonderful thing for children,” said Cheryl Norman-Brick, the orchestra's principal second violin. “They can get their hands on the instruments and experiment with them a little bit and talk to musicians.”
The concert will open with two world premiere pieces and other original works by PROJECT Trio, LACO's Family Concerts Series' artists-in-residence for the next three seasons. The trio will then join the orchestra in a performance of Aaron Copland's “Appalachian Spring.”
“I think it's a nice mix,” Seymour said. “Our music is a way to get young people in the mood to listen, and then we kind of show them this other side. A lot of kids haven't experienced classical music before, so hearing a great piece like the Copland should be a treat. And it's an amazing treat for us to get to perform it.”
All of the trio members, respected virtuosos in their own right, are serious classical musicians who don't take themselves too seriously. Downbeat Magazine described PROJECT Trio's performances as “packed with musicianship, joy and surprise.” Jazz Review called the group's self-titled CD “a glorious celebration of the music of our time.”
“I used to be known as a head-banging bass player in the back of orchestras,” Seymour said. “People used to ask me why I moved around so much. To be honest, I can't help myself. And certainly Greg, our flute player, has an extremely wild style of performing. When we step on stage, we just want people to have a great time.”
Informality comes naturally to these three musicians, who feel that taking classical music out of its formal clothes is a way to help it resonate with younger audiences. In fact, although they will dress up for evening orchestral appearances, they prefer T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes in less formal settings.
“To be able to go out there and blow the house down in a casual way, I think there's something cool about that,” Seymour said.
The trio members, now in their 30s, first met as students at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The idea for the group began when Stephenson and Seymour played together during summers in the Colorado Music Festival.
“We would talk about how great it would be if we could do something that brought together everything we loved about classical music, combined with everything that we loved about more popular-culture music, because we're all big-time jazz fans, rock fans, hip-hop fans.”
The initial plan in 2005 was to do “a little project” two or three times a year consisting of a week of education and community engagement, ending with “a concert of interesting music, maybe some original music, some jam music and maybe a piece of classical repertoire,” Seymour said.
These days, when the trio tours, “we are nonstop,” Seymour said. “We wake up in the morning and go to an elementary school. We have lunch and go to a high school. We'll maybe pop into a hospital. That night we'll play the concert, and the next day we'll fly or drive to the next town and do it all again.
“When you're on the road, if you're only working in the evening, you're wasting a good part of your day,” he said, laughing.
Original compositions by the trio, which created its own label and publishing company, Harmonyville Records, in 2008, draw on the sounds of jazz, hip-hop beatbox and rock. They include reinterpretations of works by J.S. Bach and Tchaikovsky, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk and other unexpected and disparate composers.
Educational outreach is at the center of the nonprofit ensemble's mission. PROJECT Trio has so far conducted workshops and performed for more than 100,000 students across the United States and internationally in programs crafted to meet National Standards for Music Education for elementary school through college.
“I told the guys when we started that I wanted it to be an educational ensemble,” said Seymour, a teacher's son. “Not only does it do good for kids, it's also a great way to bring an ensemble together.”
Older audiences also respond to PROJECT Trio's eclectic mix. “People say, ‘Oh, they're not going to like you guys because you're too much like rock ‘n' roll,' but we've found that anyone can come to our show and enjoy something,” Seymour said.
“I have always thought that when you perform music at a really high level, people are going to love the concert. We go out there and give it our all, just trying to put on a great show and play the music that we love to play.”
The 2012 season of themed LACO Family Concerts at the Alex Theatre will conclude with “Fool for Dance” on April 1, featuring works by Respighi and Ravel; and an all-Mozart “Mozart & Me” program on May 6.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Family Concert With PROJECT Trio, Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Sunday — 1 p.m.: Pre-concert activities (Instrument Petting Zoo, crafts and dance); 2 p.m.: Concert performance. $12-$20. (213) 622-7001, www.laco.org