Philadelphia’s Relâche to lead ‘Unsilent Night’ around Rittenhouse

Baltimore UN 2009 by Dorret Oosterhof
Dorret Oosterhof

As far as New Music and contemporary Classical sound goes, Philadelphia’s longtime ensemble, Relâche, has forever been apart from the norm. Along with commissioning and producing work strictly from living composers, its sonic twist, though subtle, comes from its arrangements.

“One key factor that distinguishes Relâche from other New Music ensembles begins and end with its instrumentation,” says Relâche co-artistic director and oboist, Lloyd Shorter of the Philly-based group’s intentional addition of bass and viola to the New Music norm of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, often complemented by a singer or percussionist.

“This addition bass and viola gives everything we do a warm, lower, Eastern European sound, which composers and listeners around the country and world have to come to associate with us.”

Relâche bassoonist Chuck Holderman, states that the ensemble, unlike other New Music groups “plays music that is not hard on the ears.”

That low boiling heat has long been a cherished, required tone for Relâche when tackling composer Phil Kline’s legendarily wintry “Unsilent Night” and its nearly three decade long tradition of being played, outdoors, during the Christmas holiday season, for free, and with a public parade of musicians and non-musicians joining in on the soulful, sonic procession.

An international phenomenon (45 cities across five continents), with Kline’s downloadable electronic composition available via app or download, the public can perform “Unsilent Night” along with Relâche – on boomboxes and smart phones, try to bring a small speaker – on Friday at 6:30 p.m. starting in Rittenhouse Square through to Old City, and, for the first time, in Kennett Square on Dec. 19 at 4:30 pm starting at the Kendal-Crosslands.

“What is so compelling about Relâche is that it has, and continues to influence composers,” says Shorter. “For instance, Relâche commissioned new works from the music critic, composer, professor and analyst Kyle Ganns, who put a new spin on the well-known ‘Holst Planets’ to include the sun and the moon.”

Taylor Davidson

When it comes to what Phil Kline’s chilly “Unsilent Night” means to Relâche, Shorter continues with the ensemble’s wonderful opportunity to head outdoors — Covid-ly distanced and masked, of course — with a different audience who are also the participants in this composition.

“‘Unsilent Night’ is a terrific example of New Music from the late 20th century, early 21st century that appeals to people of all ages, all religions, all backgrounds,” says Shorter. “It is also a multi-sensory experience that brings the musicians and public together outside with not only sound, but lights and movement. Relâche takes every opportunity to participate and host events of this nature — this is why we also commission performances that incorporate silent film and other visuals. New Music should not only be interesting and compelling, but also fun.”

Holderman, a member of the ensemble since 1985, notes that Kline’s rhythmic-driven electronic composition is gorgeous to behold, “filed with lovely sampled choral music,” and that having non-ensemble members carry cell phones, boomboxes or other tech in which to blare forth one or more of the composition’s four instrumental parts, is simply a gleeful way to celebrate the wintry season.

“The people in the parade move in different ways as the parade goes on, and in that respect, it is John Cage-like and always different,” states Holderman. “It is driven by chance on their end, and from Relâche to the community, it is our gift to them. It’s a lovely stroll through the brisk evening air.”

If you don’t have the voice for caroling, “Unsilent Night” is the most musical way to spread holy holiday cheer.