Pittsburgh Live: A not-so-classical take on performance venues

February 17, 2012

Breaking the mold is a long-honored aesthetic perspective.

Yet, the presentation of classical music has been centered on the concert hall since the 19th century. Concerts in other venues — such as a church or the auditorium of a museum — usually follow the conventions of the concert hall.

But another stream of concert presentation, driven by young musicians and audiences, has found a niche in clubs and other less obvious settings.

“While we do present concerts in more traditional theaters, the heart of what we offer in more innovative settings sends the message that the concert-going expression and experience are different,” says violist Jason Hohn of Freya Quartet.

“Unorthodox venues give audience members the subliminal message to open up to a different concert-going experience,” he says. “We encourage people to bring a bottle of wine, to enjoy a social experience with their friends instead of fitting in and not interacting.”

Four concerts in coming weeks highlight the trend growing locally. Club Cafe on the South Side has hosted many classical concerts during the past decade, including a couple by cellist Matt Haimovitz. He was a child prodigy who recorded with the Chicago Symphony as a teenager, but has preferred playing in clubs for more than a decade.

Matt Haimovitz at CBGB [credit: Harry DiOrio]

Matt Haimovitz at CBGB [credit: Harry DiOrio]

Alternative venues are proliferating. The Imani Winds will play at Mr. Small’s Theatre in Millvale on Feb. 26, one day before they perform at Bellefield Hall auditorium in Oakland. Both shows are sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. Other groups are playing at art galleries amid the art.

The phenomenon of classical concerts in unusual venues is “very widespread, much more widespread than anyone knows because no one keeps track of these things,” says Greg Sandow, a composer and critic who in his 16th year teaching a course called “Classical Music in an Age of Pop” at the Juilliard School in New York City. “People know I’m interested in these things, so they tell me.”

“What’s behind this is a growing sense that things are changing and there are two ways to put this,” Sandow says. “You could say the old ways of making a career don’t work as well. Or, wow, this is an interesting time to be a musician, free to make careers anyway they want. There’s a lot of experimentation. This ties in with entrepreneurship. It’s a buzzword. Go to any music school and say it, and people snap to attention.”

Pittsburgh composer David Cutler, who teaches at Duquesne University, wrote a widely admired book called “The Savvy Musician” that addresses practical ways for musicians to be entrepreneurial. Yet, the drive to perform in unfamiliar venues is equally driven by sheer enjoyment.

“Playing in an intimate setting, and ours are really intimate, gives the audience the chance to be really close to the performers. The front row of seats is so close you could touch the performer,” say bassist Gino Faraci, executive director of Classical Revolution Pittsburgh, which draws on a roster of 20 professional musicians on a concert-by-concert basis.

Although Classical Revolution Pittsburgh was, at first, partly defined by performances by professional and nonprofessional musicians working together, it aspires to the highest standards of performance. It made its debut at The Beehive in the South Side in March 2011 and remains committed to performing in “more accessible venues” such as clubs and bars. The next show is March 6 at Monk’s Place in Lawrenceville.

“There is a feeling the audience is part of the performance, as opposed to a separation of the performers up on stage and the audience below,” Faraci says. “We do it on the same level. For the musicians, the experience becomes easier, more fun. It’s more about playing the music, rather than all of the other things that go along with a formal concert.”

Orchestras are tied to concert halls because of the space needed for many performers and for a large number of seats to be sold for economic reasons. But the Pittsburgh Symphony’s composer of the year for 2012-13 is Mason Bates, a highly regarded club DJ. He created “Mercury Soul,” a DJ-driven classical concert that breaks the concert-going mold. A performance of it in Chicago took place in a warehouse. He wants the audience to feel free to walk around at “Mercury Soul.”

“For me, ‘Mercury Soul’ started in San Francisco and Chicago and Miami, and we hope Pittsburgh. We think of it as an outreach project,” Bates says. “I don’t think that way when I’m composing using electronic music. This kind of event brings some of the great music of our field to the ears of folks who might not end up at the symphony the first time around. But we hope to show them music can be an incredible experience, if they have the background or don’t.”

Bates believes nothing should replace concert halls. “That’s the space where this music is supposed to happen, where you can really hear the nuances that divide our field from so many others. In our world so much is about nuances and detail. Anyone who listens to a lot of pop music knows it’s at one dynamic level.”

Although the number of concerts in alternative venues is increasing, the trend still is fragile.

“All of this very nice, but what do you get from playing in a club besides maybe the excitement of facing an audience that is excited about you and near you. One thing you don’t get is paid. You don’t make money, not enough to live,” Sandow says. “If this is to be part of the future of classical music, the financial model has yet to take shape.”

by Mark Kanny

View this at Pittsburgh Live.

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