By Mike Telin
In the coffee house the musicians performed contemporary music without having a fixed program. As a general rule the music was performed at sight or with limited rehearsal time. The audience, consisting of visitors as well as residents and university students, enjoyed performances of familiar as well as newly composed chamber music while drinking their coffee.
This could describe a Classical Revolution event in any number of cities around the globe. Or, by substituting coffee for hot dogs and beer, an evening at the Happy Dog in Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood. But it’s actually a loose description – adapted from Thomas Braatz’s summary translation of an article by Andreas Glöckner – of a typical evening with J.S. Bach’s Collegium Musicum at one of Leipzig’s coffee houses in the 1730s.
In the 21st century, it seems that all things old are indeed new again as classical musicians seek fresh ways to connect with the public and with each other. In the case of Classical Revolution or the Cleveland Orchestra musicians who are part of Ensemble HD, that means leaving the concert hall and playing in bars or cafés. And for the Sixth Floor Trio and the Akron Symphony (ASO) musicians involved in the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture” project, it means surprising and delighting people with music as they go about their everyday lives.
“I’m going to be playing some Bach sonatas with a friend of mine at a coffee shop in Toronto,” says violinist and Classical Revolution co-founder Edwin Huizinga. “If people have the slightest bit of curiosity about what a violin or a harpsichord sounds like, they don’t have to go to a concert hall and pay $65 to hear it. I’ve done some research about how seriously Bach wanted these kinds of things to happen, and Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig was exactly like that. I have dreams about curating things for today’s composers in that setting, but I want to ease people into some of the most beautiful music I know.”
After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory, Huizinga continued his studies in San Francisco, where he met violist Charith Premawardhana, with whom he spent every Sunday evening performing chamber music at the Revolution Café. That resulted in the birth of Classical Revolution in November 2006. “One of the problems I saw going to school in San Francisco was the lack of opportunities for young musicians to perform in public,” said Huizinga. “Sure, we have a recital once a semester or so. But in the real world a musician has to play, and for a young quartet to be in a bar and have the opportunity to run through the Shostakovich eighth string quartet for the first time is an experience you will never forget.”
Sean Watterson, co-owner of the Happy Dog, which hosts Classical Revolution Cleveland events, agrees. “What’s great is that the musicians are young and they’re excited about playing. The students spend a lot of time practicing and they’re really good. But the experience of getting up on stage in a room full of people who didn’t come to sit down, shut up, and listen forces them to figure out how to capture the crowd’s attention. It teaches this showmanship aspect to performing and I think it’s valuable. I think it’s something that will serve them throughout their careers.”
Taking music to the people is something that had been on the mind of Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist and Ensemble HD founder Joshua Smith for some time. “I always wanted to play in a bar,” he said, “and I had been obsessing with the concept of figuring out a way to connect to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come into a concert hall. I had a lot of different ideas of where that could possibly happen, and this was right around the time when flash mobbing was becoming popular.” Smith got his wish after he and Watterson met at an awareness raiser for the Gordon Square Arts District. The two started talking and, as Watterson jokes, “He needed a bar and I had one.”
Why did Smith always want to play in a bar? “I just wanted to get musicians off the stage and put them in front of people who wouldn’t normally come to a concert and see what happened.” And what happened? By the time they started playing there was a line around the block. “I had no idea that anyone would come. I thought we might be doing a slow Tuesday night.”
Another reason Smith sees bars as great alternative venues for chamber music is that they’re small and he wants people to be able to enjoy everything up close. And he says performing in them is exactly the same as being on stage, though the vibe is completely different. “In a concert hall the audience sits and listens quietly and intently. Having people not pay attention does take us out of our comfort zone.”
Bassoonist Renee Anthony Dee, who coordinated more than 150 Random Acts of Culture events for the Akron Symphony, agrees. “It’s a new experience for the musicians and it takes time to become comfortable with simply showing up and performing in a manner they were not accustomed to doing.” Dee recalls traveling with a string trio from the ASO on a slushy Saturday morning in November to the Akron bus terminal. “The musicians were very tired, but they got inside and started to play “Musetta’s Waltz.” There we were in the bus station with a gathering of people who were just there, and it was the most profound experience because it touched every person. There were tears, joy, and appreciation, and it completely changed those peoples’ day. And it also changed us. We drove away all saying, ‘That’s why we do this. And we should do more of that all the time.'”
The members of the Sixth Floor Trio, who were the national representatives for the Random Acts project, describe Random Acts as the perfect test environment to see how the public would react. Indeed, they experienced a range of responses, from large groups of people who were giving them money to people who would walk by and pay no attention. But they also found that if a few people gathered to listen, more would stop and listen as well. They also said that it is important to note that there is no real idea of success, and success changes with every circumstance.
In addition to connecting musicians to people, Classical Revolution connects musicians to musicians. “When we travel, it’s brilliant that there’s a way to go to a place like the Revolution Café, where there’s a weekly or bi-weekly event,” Huizinga said. He loves to tell the story about the time he was sight-reading a Brahms sextet with a violist he thought was incredible. “Do you play in San Francisco?” “No,” she replied. “I’m currently principal in the Berlin Philharmonic.” How did she find her way to Classical Revolution? One of Huizinga’s best friends from Oberlin is Sacha Rattle, the clarinetist-son of Berlin Philharmonic principal conductor Simon Rattle. “He moved to Berlin and took the Classical Revolution idea and started working on it there. So the violist heard about it and was in San Francisco for a couple of days and wanted to check it out.”
Although Cleveland’s Happy Dog has presented music from the moment it opened, classical chamber music was not part of the normal musical offerings. But Watterson says he always wanted it to be a place where everybody felt comfortable. “It wasn’t that big of a stretch or risk in some ways to present Ensemble HD in the bar — the biggest risk was buying the bar.” And, he said, “If it didn’t work, it was just one night.”
Watterson confesses that, like many of his patrons, he doesn’t know a lot about classical music but is learning. But he does know that the classical music performances are connecting to people. “Ensemble HD is so good at what they do, and when something’s really good, like really good polka music, or soul music, you can tell by the quality and emotion in it, and that’s what connects to people.”
Huizinga believes that, in the end, it’s all about people connecting to people and discovering things together. “Three weeks ago, Classical Revolution Toronto opened for an Indie rock band and that really takes classical music and the audience and changes things up in a big way,” he said. “The audience was definitely in their 20s and 30s, and it was incredible to see all these people who had never been in contact with classical music, and there were some unbelievable comments.
“We did the Dvořák piano quintet and some people thought we had composed the piece. Some people asked how it’s possible that you can play a piece that’s more than three or four minutes long — and they couldn’t believe that it was one piece. It felt like we were breaking down all these amazing barriers. As young players ourselves, we’re itching to connect with people of our generation. And the different atmosphere that’s created by having drinks before the show and being able to mingle and meet each other and ask questions — there’s just way less historical pretense to these concerts….”
Since their first Happy Dog performance in 2010, Joshua Smith and Sean Watterson have taken their classical music partnership one step further with their acclaimed recording, Ensemble HD: Live at the Happy Dog. The album was released last spring during the Cleveland Orchestra’s “At Home in Gordon Square” residency. Recorded over two evenings in December 2012, the album is available on vinyl and as a digital download.
[Related link: Off-Beat Chicago Venues Energize Classical Music]
Quotations from Edwin Huizinga and Renee Anthony Dee are from recent telephone conversations. Quotations from Joshua Smith and Sean Watterson were transcribed from a ClevelandClassical podcast recorded in Dec. 2012. Quotations by the Sixth Floor Trio are taken from a ClevelandClassical article published in 2012.
Mike Telin is executive editor of ClevelandClassical.com and team-teaches “Introduction to Music Criticism” at Oberlin College.