What’s in a (group’s) name?

banchettoboston baroque

Boston Baroque has just announced the program for its 2014-2015 season.

Note that even if you had never previously heard of Boston Baroque, you now know where they are and what they play.  Would that have been true had the ensemble maintained its original name, Banchetto Musicale?  In fact — be honest — are you absolutely sure how to say “Banchetto Musicale?”

My point exactly.

Music lovers of my age or older will recall the 1960’s and ’70’s, when an unprecedented number of early music groups came onto the Anglophone classical scene.  Since it was crucial to these groups’ image to indicate their separateness from the classical mainstream, they tended to adopt obscure monikers in foreign, often dead, languages.  That’s how we got Banchetto Musicale, Syntagma Musicum, Pomerium Musices, Cappella Cordina, Pro Cantione Antiqua, Sine Nomine, Cappella Alamire, et al.  Not just to pick on early music, such was also the case in new music of the time, though more in the wonky names of pieces (“Algorithms I,” “Synchronisms No. 6,” “Syzygy”) than performing groups.

Getting back to early music, such names may have been fine for groups that aspired to nothing further than performing for other specialists, making the rounds of early music festivals, and generally singing to the choir, as it were.  But for any group desirous of busting out of the cozy confines of ye earlie musicke, such a name wouldn’t do.  I mean, could you just imagine what hash your local TV news anchor would make out of “Banchetto Musicale?”*  Actually, it’s unfair to pick on the local news anchor, since some pretty well-known NPR national program hosts have been known to mangle what to many of us would be everyday musical terms, like “concerto.”

So, if it’s traditional mainstream classical acceptance and a broader audience you seek, choose a name that’s pronounceable, memorable, and in very few syllables, suggests what it is that you do.  Like Boston Baroque.

But what if rather seeking mainstream classical acceptance, your cool new classical group wants to appeal to the same smart young listeners who may not know their Brahms from their Borodin, but groove to the tunes of tUnE-yArDs, of Montreal and the F*** Buttons?  Would you then go for such outré handles as Alarm Will Sound, ETHEL, itsnotyouitsme and Roomful of Teeth (performing Friday evening at Amherst College)?  Yes, you would, and should.  For where names like Banchetto Musicale and Syntagma Musicum were once confining, names like ETHEL are now liberating.  And what they’re liberating from is the tradition-enslaved mode of classical music presentation, one which the youngest few generations of potential listeners has convincingly rejected.  There’s a large, inquisitive, intelligent potential audience for the kind of music these new groups make, and I don’t blame them at all for reaching out, in name and in every other way, to their target audience, even if their names make some of us oldsters shake our heads.

*The name “Banchetto Musicale,” meaning “musical banquet,” comes from a 1617 set of instrumental suites (original cover page above) by German composer Johann Hermann Schein.  Boston Baroque retains the name for an annual celebratory gathering.

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