Classical Music

With Grande Orquesta Navarre, Denver Musicians Make Ambition Accessible

Grande Orquesta Navarre came together in the summer of 2015 when Evan Orman, Sara Parkinson, Susan Cahill and Tom Hagerman decided to ditch the genre confines of their former tango outfit, Exstasis, for a more open-format band. Drawing on their mutual interest and backgrounds in classical music, jazz, rock, pop and tango, the quartet aimed to make music that didn't need to be narrowly defined but also had a cohesive creative chemistry. With musical partnerships that collectively reach back a full decade — and, in the case of Cahill, Hagerman and Orman, two decades — that chemistry seems to come naturally.

All the members of the band have busy lives outside of the project, but what GON represents is a certain creative freedom and frisson that they don't always otherwise find. “My life is chock-full of opera singers, young string players, piano students, a volunteer church choir and traditional chamber music,” says Parkinson. “I have always been passionate about working with composers and being a part of their creative process.  I made a recording and worked closely with Libby Larsen with my other ensemble, Liria Duo, a few years ago, and it was one of the most exhilarating collaborative experiences of my life. With Grande Orquesta Navarre, I get that same rush, because Tom and Sue also compose, and we do unique and new arrangements all the time. It's totally addictive.”

GON played its first shows in late December 2015 at Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge, as part of the concert series Denver Eclectic Concerts that Cahill and her husband, Scott Higgins, have curated since 2013, taking over for founder Dianne Betkowski, who started the series in 2007 at venues on South Pearl Street. That first show sold so well that GON did a second night, some of which was captured for a live LP for which the group is taking pre-orders for a limited-edition pressing. With different collaborators for every show, each GON performance is a little different, featuring original material and covers of music that few other groups would attempt, much less adapt for the smaller format. But this challenge suited the band perfectly as it transitioned out of the tango-oriented Exstasis.

“For the last several years of playing tango music for dancers, my relationship with the music deteriorated, and I found it a little confining,” says Orman. “It didn't feel fun or exciting anymore. It was hard to transplant that narrow style into something else.”

“We wanted a new concept where we could do original works by Tom or myself or any of us who wanted to write,” says Cahill. “We wanted to do modern music and quirky classical favorites of ours. The idea was a salon orchestra, like in Cabaret where they were sitting around smoking, with a motley crew of instruments hanging around to accompany the evening. We still do some tango, but the idea was also to expand to work with other people and other instrumentalists and singers and to have a new vibe that's more genre-inclusive.”

For its next show, GON will perform originals by Cahill and Hagerman but it will also perform some fascinatingly unexpected pieces. These will include “Le Grande Tango,” “Esqualo” and “Soledad,” by nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla, and “Aubade,” from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

“I love the vibe of Soviet-era composers,” says Hagerman. “They, I feel like, were the first ones really to capture that sense of [twentieth] century's crushing, absurdist, existentialist dread. Shostakovich was better at that feeling than Prokofiev, I think, but there is something so whimsical about the more light-hearted stuff, like this tune. This tune sounds more like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.”

But beyond the ambitious mix of ideas and methods, including boiling grand classical pieces to manageable essentials and bringing life and spirit to the music, the format and presentation of GON's performances will separate them from many people's modern experience with live music. “I think the most exciting thing about this group from an audience standpoint is that you never hear this type of ensemble live and up close with no P.A.,” says Hagerman. “I don't think most people hear any music live and up close without a P.A. at this point.”

Grande Orquesta Navarre, Sunday, September 18, 7:30 p.m., Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge, 303-615-4000.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.