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VSO Jukebox Series Explores the Scandalous Private Lives of Composers at Adults-Only Concerts


Published January 18, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Matt LaRocca (far left) with the Jukebox Quartet - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Matt LaRocca (far left) with the Jukebox Quartet

How much do the unsavory parts of composers' private lives influence how we hear their work? According to Matt LaRocca, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra's artistic adviser and project conductor, not enough.

"We gloss over the fact that Bach was an asshole, that composers did crazy things that are well documented, [like] drugs and cult worshipping. Instead, we prop them up on pedestals," LaRocca noted during a phone call.

The VSO's Jukebox Quartet concerts this weekend at Merchants Hall in Rutland and the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington won't shy away from the sordid, depraved and experimental sides of composers' lives. In sections of the program dedicated to violence, drugs and sex, titillating stories about composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Percy Grainger and Georg Friedrich Haas will preface selections of their music.

Curated and hosted by LaRocca, the Jukebox series typically presents innovative and new classical music played by a quartet of VSO musicians in outside-the-box venues. But this program — firmly advertised as 18-plus — is sure to surpass even regulars' expectations for edginess. The sex section, for example, involves a collaboration with the Burlington adult store Earth + Salt.

LaRocca originally assembled the program for March 2020 concerts, but they were nixed by the pandemic lockdown. A composer himself, he became interested in composers' seamier sides after encountering the Tumblr account Composers Doing Normal Shit and the 2018 documentary film The Artist & the Pervert, about the living Austrian composer Haas and his dominant-submissive private life.

"We think of the product and the environment [of classical music] as so prim and proper, but the people who are performing and creating the music — that's not the way most of us are," LaRocca said. "As much as we look at [famous composers] as our creative deities, there's always this other side."

Sometimes that side is hidden. Grainger, an Australian composer who lived for most of his career in the U.S., composed "Molly on the Shore" in 1907 for his mother. The jaunty, reel-like piece offers no hint of his BDSM habits.

Grainger left the latter for posterity to discover, enclosing 70-odd whips and photographic evidence of his bondage experiments in a locked chest in a bank in Melbourne. He included instructions to open it 10 years after his death and display its contents in a museum of his life that he had founded and endowed. The museum is still open and was recently renovated.

Haas, now 70, whom LaRocca calls "the king of new music right now, especially in Europe," decided not to wait until after death to reveal his preferences. He and his wife, the sex therapist Mollena Williams-Haas, came out to the media in 2016. Haas' creativity, LaRocca noted, "is inextricably linked to being able to practice ... his dom-sub relationship."

As for Bach? "He was fired from jobs. He was a borderline alcoholic. He was a womanizer. He had very violent tendencies," the curator said, citing historians' research. Still, Bach wasn't quite as violent as the lesser-known Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, who in 1590 openly murdered his wife and her lover.

The question is whether Gesualdo's unsettling harmonies or Bach's church compositions sound different when we know about the darker aspects of their personalities. LaRocca, for one, has no doubt. "The goal is to more openly talk about these hidden sides so that we understand their music differently," he said.

For music lovers who want to bring the kids along, the VSO is also offering a family-friendly concert in LaRocca's drolly named Juicebox series on the afternoon of Saturday, January 21, at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge. (His children are 4, 7 and 9.) The program pairs music by Joseph Haydn, Philip Glass, John Cage and others with each emotion explored in Todd Parr's children's book The Feelings Book.

The 18-plus concerts, meanwhile, are sure to provoke discussion. "My hope is that it makes people a little uncomfortable but not totally uncomfortable," LaRocca said of the program. "I like being uncomfortable in art."

Vermont Symphony Orchestra Jukebox Quartet Tour, Friday, January 20, 7:30 p.m., at Merchants Hall in Rutland, $10-30; and Saturday, January 21, 7 p.m., at Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington, $15-20. 18+. Juicebox, Saturday, January 21, 4 p.m., at Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington. $5-10. vso.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Behind the Music | VSO Jukebox series explores the scandalous private lives of composers at 18-plus concerts"