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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Frederic Chiu’s ‘Smackdown’ pits composers Bach and Glass against one another

Departing from typical classical piano performances, the “Time Travelers” edition of Chiu’s Smackdown encourages audience members to interact with the music.

Frederic Chiu Photo.jpg
Courtesy of Chris Craymer

On Friday, Jan. 26, acclaimed classical pianist Frederic Chiu will present his popular and immersive “Classical Smackdown” series at Rollins Chapel as part of the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ programming. The Smackdown engages audiences in live debate over two iconic composers, according to the Hop website.

First debuted by Chiu in 2014, “Time Travelers” is one of three programs of the Smackdown that he has since performed over 100 times worldwide, according to the Smackdown website. Audience votes from each performance are tracked at the website classicalsmackdown.com.

According to his website, Chiu has recorded over 30 albums to date and is currently a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University and the Hartt School. Additionally, Chiu is a co-founder and director of the Beechwood Arts & Innovation nonprofit.

In the show, entitled “Time Travelers: Bach vs. Glass,” Chiu will perform alternating selections of piano works from composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Philip Glass over the course of three rounds, according to the Hop website. Each round is linked to a particular area of musical expertise, on which he will also deliver commentary, according to the Hop’s film program manager Johanna Evans. Evans also explained that besides listening, audiences will have the chance to vocally debate and vote for the artist they prefer in each given category.

“You could almost imagine it like bouts at a wrestling match,” Evans said. “At the end, we will know who is the ultimate composer.”

According to Angela Shang ’27, an avid listener and player of classical piano who plans to attend the show, there is a novelty to the comparison between a classical baroque and contemporary composer, as opposed to comparing composers of the same era.

“[Comparisons] are always like Mozart versus Beethoven or Mahler versus Wagner,” Shang said.

Despite the 250 years between Bach's and Glass’s works, the comparison is one that makes sense to investigate. According to Evans, one theme that carries across the pieces and the rounds is the way they all deal with time. 

“The vibe that the two composers give me is very similar,” Shang further reflected. “I think some of the Glass pieces … have a really Bach sound to [them].” 

According to the Hop’s program manager Karen Henderson, the Hop was excited to discover Chiu’s Smackdown series because it offered an unconventional program type that could attract larger audiences for its classical programming.

Evans and Henderson described the show’s unique accessibility and appeal to people familiar with the composers and classical music as well as those without prior knowledge or experience.

“In this day and age, when you have access to listen to whoever you want playing whatever kind of piece you want, having something that makes the [live] experience not just a passive viewing experience really enhances the value of it,” Evans said.

Henderson added how the experience is markedly different from the typical classical music performance, where audience members are silent.

“[The Smackdown] is a communal experience because it’s having a lot of fun and not just sitting and listening,” she said.

According to Henderson, the Hop hopes the show will make audiences realize the ubiquity of these composers’ works in their lives, even if previously unbeknownst to them. Furthermore, listening to these composers in a comparative way might allow for the audience to learn more about their own tastes.

“I hope [for] … people to go in there not knowing anything to be kind of blown away,” she said. “It’s really to learn more about the composers, but [also] a little bit more about yourself … to figure out why [you] like something or don’t like something.”

The Friday “Smackdown” will be preceded by a students-only event at Alpha Theta in collaboration with the Hop and Evans from 5 to 7 p.m. Imitating a football tailgate, the event will feature drinks and appetizers such as wings and beer, t-shirt giveaways and music-themed games like musical chairs, according to Evans. 

“We want to … get people all jazzed up for a music experience that’s really going to [produce] adrenaline, not just sitting in your chair,” Evans said. “Do you know that internet thing ‘arts but make it sports?’ This is sort of a similar [idea] – arts, or music, but make it sports.”

‘Time Travelers: Bach vs. Glass’ will show at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26, at Rollins Chapel with a 75-minute runtime. Tickets can be purchased on the Hop website for $25 or $15 for youth and students.

At 11 a.m. on Saturday, Chiu will also perform a version of ‘Smackdown’ adapted for kids – this time Debussy vs. Prokofiev – at the Union Episcopal Church as part of The Hop’s family-friendly HopStop programming.