Last weekend, I performed at Classical Revolution Cincinnati, a monthly show at the Northside Tavern. There was a very good-sized crowd, a nice mix of classical music fans and hipsters. The atmosphere was just right – the audience was listening attentively but not stifling themselves (there were some quiet conversations going on too).
Also on the program was Rick Robinson, former bassist with the Detroit Symphony, and director of that city’s chapter of Classical Revolution. I played in a string group with Rick and several others – we played some of his compositions (my favorite was “Pork and Beans“) and arrangements ranging from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to a beautiful Duke Ellington piece about Martin Luther King.
Rick is bringing back a great classical music tradition with his work – arrangements like his were common back when these pieces were written, so people could play orchestral pieces in small groups at home or in coffeehouses. You can hear some of Rick’s original compositions and learn more about him on his website.
Rick spoke eloquently during our set about Classical Revolution’s mission of bringing music to the people. He also made a great point about how performances in casual settings like bars can complement the traditional concert experience, without replacing it.
This is crucial – the concert experience is wonderful, and will continue to be the main presentation of our art form to the public, but the music does just fine in other settings, and many new audience members can get to know it more easily with a beer in their hand.
I bet many classical music devotees worry that programs like Classical Revolution are a threat to the traditional concert experience, and that any departure from the ritual of the concert hall is somehow cheapening the music. All I can say is I wish they’d heard the evening’s final performance.
Six students from CCM took the stage next, with eye makeup that belonged on a KISS tribute band:
They then gave a beautiful performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a work which is perfect for a bar. The piece was first performed in 1912 with the singer/speaker in full commedia dell’arte costume and the players (including the composer) behind a screen.
The vocalist in Pierrot half sings, half speaks (a technique Schoenberg called “Sprechstimme”) and frankly sounds a little tipsy much of the time. The texts are pretty out there, too – my favorite stanza is “Black gigantic butterflies have blotted out the shining sun. Like a sorcerer’s sealed book, the horizon sleeps in silence.” Now if this isn’t drinking music, I don’t know what is.
Pierrot’s debut came shortly before that of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 – both works sparked great controversy. There was hissing from some in the audience at Pierrot’s premiere, and the riot which erupted at the premiere of “Rite” set the standard for music’s ability to provoke.
Nowadays, both pieces are standard repertoire, performed regularly in the hushed setting of the concert hall, where even a stray cough can be greeted with stares and shushing. For all those who worry about the need for absolute quiet during performances, you should know that the audience in the bar was incredibly focused on the Pierrot performance – the minimal amount of chatter was very quiet and didn’t seem to distract the players one bit.
Good performances like this one command attention and create the atmosphere they need to be heard, even in a bar – a good lesson for any performer accustomed to the mandatory silence of a concert hall.
Furthermore, the players’ face makeup added to the mood of the piece and made perfect sense – a small but significant enhancement, and a reminder that having a little bit of fun is ok, even when you’re playing music by this guy:
I think Pierrot benefited greatly from the bar performance – maybe orchestras could serve beer the next time they perform Rite of Spring, too! In any case, my Classical Revolution experience was further proof that great music holds its own just fine, even when competing with the sounds of dropped glasses and pool tables in the next room.
Till next time,