Category Archives: alternative venues

Phoenix’s Downtown Chamber Series: An Unusual Model for Success

a view from the rear of the Great Hall at the Phoenix Art Museum

I attended the Wednesday July 27 concert of the Phoenix Downtown Chamber Series (DCS) in the Great Hall of the gorgeous Phoenix Art Museum.   The DCS, a musician-run organization founded and directed by Phoenix Symphony violist Mark Dix, has been going since 2000.  The program, except for two solo piano pieces by Granados, was of all contemporary music.  Except for two more solo piano pieces, by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), each piece included guitar and had been commissioned and/or premiered by Duo 46, guitarist Matt Gould and violinist Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould.  I listed all the performers (each of whom played terrifically well) in my preview post.

The DCS presents about five programs a year (if I understood correctly), at various art galleries, museums, and warehouse spaces in the downtown Phoenix area.  It’s a very interesting model: no traditional concert halls, changing venues, and the concerts are scheduled and announced one-by-one rather than a season in advance. Ticket prices are low (just $10), and there are a variety of donors (35 in the $10-99 category, 42 in the $100 and above).  Volunteers (seven listed in the program for these concerts) help with logistics, ushering, ticket sales, etc.

If someone had come to me before Wednesday night and asked, “How about we start a chamber music series where we just plan the concerts one by one and have them at different locations?”, I’d probably have been skeptical about the chances of building an audience.

Now that I think about it, though, an ensemble (or, in this case fairly large group of local musicians from whom the performers

From behind the stage, looking out over the seating area

for each concert are drawn) in a large metropolitan area can certainly build a following that is not venue-specific.  Having just spent five months in NY, the new-music groups Alarm Will Sound, the Metropolis Ensemble, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, each of which perform at a variety of locations, immediately come to mind as having done just that.

There were about 250 people, I estimated, at Wednesday evening’s concert, which was a repeat of a Saturday afternoon performance.  So the DCS certainly draws an audience.  Age range? Pretty typical, it seemed to me, the vast majority looking to be, like me, 50+.  Perhaps 10% 30 and under, a bit better than most classical concerts, but that’s a very rough estimate, and for one concert on a weeknight in what’s probably one of the more close-to-traditional spaces the DCS has played. This was their first set of concerts at the museum, the twelfth venue at which they’ve performed (by my count from that link).  The couple sitting next to me had read about the concert in the newspaper (old media still works!).

I was quite surprised when Mark Dix explained, in his remarks at the start of the second half of the concert, that the 2011-2012 season has yet to be planned, and that they have found that it works not to plan an entire season in advance, but to schedule things concert-by-concert, seeing who is available when. I’d have thought that with primarily local musicians, it would work better to get the season scheduled in advance–especially during the fall/winter/spring standard concert season.

On the other hand, I do a lot of last-minute scheduling myself for the summer concert series (the Greencastle Summer Music Festival) I organize in Greencastle.  We do twelve concerts a summer, and since we pay rather small honoraria and people tend not to have summer vacation and other plans set far in advance, it has worked for seven years to do the scheduling in late April and early May, with the concerts starting just after Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about starting earlier, and perhaps for some of the performers that could work, but I’ve been assuming that for most of us it wouldn’t work to pin things down too far in advance. And at DePauw, where I teach, the music faculty wasn’t enthusiastic about scheduling faculty recitals a season in advance, until the concert calendar started getting so crowded that we were forced to do so or not be able to get a date.

And many of the musicians are members of the Phoenix Symphony, and I know from my friends in the Indianapolis Symphony that the schedule can be more in flux than one would assume;  run-out concerts and special events get added during the season, so you can’t always count on a free night remaining so.

Obviously it’s working for them.  I talked briefly with Mark after the concert; his enthusiasm for performing chamber music in visually-stimulating, energetic, spaces such as art museums is contagious. He mentioned how “dead” recital halls and churches can feel, and how little classical musicians as a whole think about the visual experience of a concert.  He’s right on about that.

And it’s a musician-run, local series.  Which is great.  With the high level of the performances, I was impressed once again by how many terrific musicians there are wherever you go in the United States, just as so many of us were impressed by the high level of playing of orchestras from Toledo, Albany, Oregon, and Dallas at the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall.

Since the series presents primarily local musicians, they can pay what I assume are fairly nice fees for a gig in one’s home town. They don’t have to come up with six-figure fees to pay a big-name touring ensemble with its associated travel and hotel costs. That would require more extensive fundraising, including grants, big corporate donors/sponsors, slick program books with ads, etc.  (I talked once with the artistic director of a summer series, not too far a drive away from Greencastle, about possibly booking one or two of their groups to do a concert on my series;  each of the groups on his series expected a fee much larger than the budget for our entire summer.) To get a corporate sponsor for a program, you’d have to have that program scheduled well in advance.

But they don’t need that.  The Downtown Concert Series fulfills a very different purpose than, say, the Phoenix Chamber Music Society, which presents big-name artists like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Muir Quartet.  This is (first-rate) local musicians putting on their own concerts, and doing a great job of it.

I’m really glad I went;  it gave me a lot to think about, and possibilities to imagine.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, alternative venues, Downtown Chamber Series (Phoenix), Duo46 (violin and guitar), Ensembles, Greencastle Summer Music Festival, Phoenix Chamber Music Society

This weekend: Look & Listen Festival and GALANYC

I’m going out of (NY) town tomorrow for a long weekend.  My son graduates from college! (Of course he will have passed all his courses.)

A few things I wish I wasn’t missing here, though.  First, the Look & Listen Festival, presenting contemporary music in art galleries. Tonight (May 19), Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 PM, Sunday at 3:00 PM.  Each performance at the Chelsea Art Museum, 556 West 22nd Street.  Great lineup of New York new-music big names.  I’ll be at this evening’s performance (assuming I’m all packed, etc., which is a big if).  Tickets are just $15.

If I could be in three places at once on Saturday, the next GALA NYC show (series organized by cellist Mike Block) is at 8:00 PM at the Brooklyn Lyceum.  I loved last week’s concert. Mike’s coming up with the most interesting, eclectic combination of performers.

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Filed under Brooklyn Lyceum, Festivals/Series, GALA NYC, Look & Listen festival, Look & Listen festival

New blood at Nublu: Brooklyn Rider Glass CD release party

“What I like about Nublu is that I can kick off my shoes, put my feet up, lean back on the couch and have a drink while listening to music,” my friend said as we settled in for the May 17 Brooklyn Rider release party for their new Philip Glass CD.  On a black leather couch, we could look at our reflections (as well of that of the art work above our heads) in a large mirror on the other side of the room. Johnny Gandelsman, one of the quartet’s violinists (who, by the way, has the most unusual, high-on-the-stick bow-hand position of any non-early-music violinist I’ve seen) had thanked the audience for coming to “the most alternative of alternative venues.”  (OK, I’d had a beer by then.  That comment could have come from Colin Jacobsen, the other violinist.)

my view of Brooklyn Rider at Nublu

More relaxed and casual than LPR, NuBlu is just a few blocks up from John Zorn’s bare-bones small avant-garde performance space The Stone.  (“Are all the really cool places in New York on Avenue C?” I asked.) An attractively grungy bar with a variety of art on the walls (some of the graffiti variety), and a combination of couches, upholstered balls (in holders that keep them from rolling around), bar stools and the, yes, the floor to sit on, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable place to listen to a concert.  Especially if you’ve snagged a couch seat.  Drinks reasonably priced for New York ($7).  The entrance is unmarked; just a booth with a (stern) doorman.  About as East Village as you can get. (Or is this the Lower East Side? Still working out Manhattan neighborhood boundaries.  At Ave. C and 5th St., it’s definitely in “Alphabet City.”)

Brooklyn Rider's performance space at Nublu

All Philip Glass music–no rock covers, mashups, or remixes, the kind of thing that some of us think is needed to bring in a young audeince, played by a classical/eclectic string quartet.  Virtually the entire audience in their 20s, or not much beyond.  Usually I go to a classical concert and, at 52, get to feel like a kid again, since almost everyone’s older than me.  What a pleasure it was to feel like an old guy.  (“I don’t think you’re allowed to live in the Lower East Side if you’re over 25,” my friend said as we took a cab home.)

This was the second time I’ve heard Brooklyn Rider play–the first was at Tully Scope.  Once again, amplified, well, and effectively.  All the players standing, except for cellist Eric Jacobsen, perched on an speaker.  Terrific, committed playing.  “We devoted three years to this project,” Colin told me after the performance, and it shows.  “I don’t like Glass,” my friend said, “but I loved this performance.”  And she must be a big fan of Brooklyn Rider, because it takes a major effort (three subway trains and a long walk) to get to NuBlu from the Upper West Side, where each of us lives. “This is like another country,” she said.

I’m still getting used to the fact that these club shows invariably start late.  The Nublu site didn’t actually list a time;  just said that Brooklyn Rider was “the early show.”  (I take that back;  I just looked again and the site says the “early band” is at 9:00 PM). The BR site listed as 9:00 PM.

But  that was more the start-mingling-and-drinking-in-earnest time.  The music started about forty minutes later.  I’d been a little antsy about getting there by the announced time, just in case.  The advantage was that we were there early enough to claim half a couch.  (Unfortunately, the other half was taken by a couple who, unlike everyone else in the place, talked through the entire performance. They were quiet only between pieces.)

I was entranced by the music.  If I wasn’t pretty broke now from New-York-overspending syndrome, I’d buy the BR CD of the complete Glass quartets. They played the Fourth Quartet, the Second (“Company”), and the Third (“Mishima,” for the film it was composed for.)

Cool place.  Great group. Fantastic music.  Young crowd, listening attentively (except for the chatty couple next to me), clearly absorbed.

There is a younger audience. Glad to have been there with them.

One of the Nublu staff has written me that the Nublu Orchestra with Butch Morris will be doing four shows next month.  The June calendar isn’t up yet, but I’ll definitely try to catch one if I’m still in town.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Brooklyn Rider, Nublu, Philip Glass

Great Time at GALA NYC

“This is the concert I came to New York to hear,” I realized Saturday night, as I was reveling in delight at the GALA NYC (“Global Art, Local Audience”) event at the Brooklyn Lyceum. (If you’re new here, I’m in NY researching, among other things, developments in alternative presentation of “classical” music.)

Brooklyn Lyceum

The Brooklyn Lyceum

In a big, attractive space (the building started out as a bathhouse–no, not that kind of bathhouse), with big windows and lots of exposed brick, cellist Mike Block assembles a weekly cast of musicians and performance artists from various genres into a fabulous mix that, based on my one visit so far, allows performers to interact and exchange ideas without watering down or sacrificing their individual integrity.

Hideaki Aomori (saxophonist who plays frequently with Sufjan Stevens), Hu Jianbing (Chinese folk musician who is a master of the Sheng, a mouth organ), the Enso [String] Quartet, Shane Shanahan (world percussion), and CXC StreetstyleContermorary Dance joined Block on Saturday May 14 in a diverse (0bviously) and, more importantly, engaging program.  Block, Jianbing, and Shanahan have all participated in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.  That spirit of musical dialogue pervaded the evening.

I’d gotten there about 7:40 PM for the 8:00 PM show.  Terrific location–same block as a subway (R) stop.  Somehow I hadn’t managed to eat dinner, so I was relieved when told that “the group before” had run over and doors would open at 8:00 PM.  There were a couple of delis across the street, and I grabbed a salad.

Back at the cavernous Lyceum, I was directed upstairs to the big second-floor room (which gets used for basketball games as well as performances. Once seated, I found myself writing in my notebook, “cool space!”  Wonderful room, wine for sale (and coffee and snacks downstairs in the café). Folding chairs arranged in semi-circles, with the performing space set up in front of the windows.

GALA NYC Performance Area

GALA NYC Performance Area 5/14/2011

Not a huge crowd–maybe 50 or 60?  But I’m sure the audience will grow as the series continues–it’s that good.  The only challenge will be visual, especially when there’s dance–the performance area isn’t raised.

Mike Block, in jeans and a plaid shirt, gave a friendly, informal welcome to the audience, apologizing for the late start (which seemed almost unnecessary; I don’t think I’ve been to any “alternative venue” event in NY that started on time).  The show was being broadcast live on UStream (you can watch future shows here; wish they were archived).

looking back from my seat at the Brooklyn Lyceum

looking back from my seat

From the rear came almost magically elongated, drone-like sounds.  They turned out to be from a large frame drum, on which Shane Shanahan was slowly rubbing a finger.  He made his way to the front, stopping by a small child for a moment so the boy could look at the drum.  Rhythmic gestures stared, and Shane began overtone singing (don’t ask me to explain).  Then Mike picked up his cello and added initially floating, ethereal, and scratchy sounds which led into a solo cadenza-like section, initially folky and playful, then more like blues.  Shane picked up a dumbeck, and Mike began playing a energetic rhythmic groove, from a chart (turned out the open sections had been improvised) that eventually included ricochet strokes and tapping on the cello.

So the evening went.  Original music.  Improvisations.  The Enso Quartet playing movements from Erwin Schulhoff‘s fabulous Five Pieces for String Quartet (Schulhoff was killed by the Nazis and his music, suppressed in his lifetime, is finally being discovered and embraced).  A wonderful Shen solo from Hu Jianbing.  All sorts of combinations.  The two CXC dancers (Carmela Torchia and Chris Shalik Mathis) frequently joining in with their unique combination of moves from various traditions, including break dancing (on the floor, which would have been hard for most of the audience to see).  As a grand finale, a cover of the YouTube hit, Rebecca Black’s Friday, with all the performers (Mike singing, getting the audience to join in).

And why was it the “concert I came to New York to hear”?  Great, alternative location–not a stuffy concert hall.  Top performers from a wide range of traditions.  Interaction that really worked and didn’t seem to sacrifice anything.  A successful mashup of genres.  Remixing (including a Bach Courante) that really worked. Integration of music and dance.  A warm, informal atmosphere.  An engaging host (Mike), who speaks well, infomrally, and not too much (hard to pull off). Audience involvement, including volunteers who came up front to supply ideas for an improvisation), and the final singalong. Improvisation integrated with composed music. Seats for everyone, and no minimum food/drink purchase required (unlike, say, LPR, if you sit at a table).  Even close to the subway!

Great, inspiring model for me to take back to my students–and share with my readers.

Now the big question is whether this model is something that can be financially viable.  This was the second event in a series just getting off the ground.  Even if everyone there paid the small admission fee (and there must have been a number of guests besides me, who had a press ticket), there wouldn’t be much money to divide up among the musicians.  Hopefully, the audience will grow.  (If it does, many will have a tough time seeing the performers, so a stage will need to be set up.)

Well, if I ran a grant agency, I’d be happy to fund this project.  It would be great, though, if things like this could be self-sustaining.

Meanwhile, it was just terrific.  I’ll be out of town this coming weekend for my son’s college graduation, so I’ll miss the May 21 performance.  May 28 is already on my calendar.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Brooklyn Lyceum, GALA NYC, Mike Block

Whose way?

“Would you please stop doing that?”

“Sure,” I said, kind of embarrassed. I put my iPhone back in my pocket.

It was about midnight.  The Grand Central 7 (subway) train platform.  He looked to be in his early sixties, ponytailed, jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Playing acoustic guitar, singing with a plaintive, gravelly voice that floated in the arched space, filling the silence, seeping into places in my body I hadn’t realized were there.

Some of the most affecting music in New York is in the subways.  Sure, some of it is awful.  But a surprising amount is incredible.  It can make you want to dance.  Or cry. It’s a miracle to me–the way music blossoms in unexpected places, like wild flowers.

I have this fantasy of making a short film, a montage of video clips, to remember it with when I go back to Indiana. So I usually carry around a small hi-def camera. When something’s great, I film it. That night all I had was my iPhone.

But he didn’t like that. Even though I’d sheepishly put it away, he didn’t resume the music.  He was pissed off.  Stood up, walked over to the tracks, and spit.  Mumbled something about “fucking assholes,” and went back to his seat.

I didn’t know what to do.  Apologize?  Tip him?  A dollar? Twenty?

All sorts of thoughts went through my head.  Hey!  He’s playing in a public space, why shouldn’t anyone be able to film him?  Why should I feel bad? But I know what it’s like to want your privacy, even in a public space. To feel violated, taken for granted.  To be turned into an object, something for a tourist’s Facebook page.

I weighed options, confused. What to do?

The train came.

I got in, and rode away from the dilemma.

Earlier that evening:

We met at, well, I’m not going to say.

It was one of the many bar/restaurant/clubs in New York that present music–jazz groups, pop singers, an occasional classical group, etc.  I hadn’t been there before, and was glad to experience another “alternative” venue.  Alice, I’ll call her, a friend of a friend, had suggested the place and the performance. A young singer. “He does Sinatra!”  So my friend–I’ll call her Jane–arranged for the three of us to go to this show.

But Jane had to work late and couldn’t make it.  Since Jane had bought non-refundable tickets, Alice and I, after almost backing out, both showed up and met there for the first time.  Dave–another friend of Jane, and one I already knew–eventually joined us to use the highly resourceful and well-networked Jane’s ticket. She was not letting that thing go to waste.

The “does Sinatra” guy isn’t an imitator.  He’s had a good career singing songs Frank made popular–kind of like Harry Connick, Jr. when he got his big When Harry Met Sally career bump.  Quite successful, tours a lot, but hasn’t cracked the big time, especially in the U.S.  He’s playing New York, but it’s a small-venue, mid-week early show. Not at a place like Feinstein’s, but a downtown club.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.

“I don’t understand why he’s not as big as Michael Buble!” Alice shared, perplexed.

She’s a fan. She met him after a show a few years ago, and he told her that Fienstein’s is his goal.  (It’s like playing Carnegie Hall for a classical musician.)

Why isn’t he there?

After the show, Dave, who works in the entertainment business, and I went for coffee (Alice got in the autograph line).  We had each had the same answer.

Not-Frank (as I’ll call the singer) is slick and polished,  a tremendously skilled performer.  But his music making felt artificial and calculated.  Raw emotional connection, a sense of human authenticity, those qualities so strong in Sinatra’s singing?  Not there.

And how do I put this?  Not-Frank, while energetic and “masculine” in many ways, also was a touch effeminate.  Perfectly coiffed hair, a pink tie and breast handkerchief.  My gaydar went off big time as soon as he took the stage.  At first I was excited–maybe I was encountering the Rufus Wainright of pop/jazz singers.  But then he made too many jokes and comments about women, including innuendo about the one who opened for him and joined him for duets mid-set.

“Straight guys don’t make that many jokes about doing it with women,” Dave (who is straight) said, putting down his coffee.  “He was trying way too hard.” Whoever Not Frank is, the man he played on stage didn’t hold our attention; each of us had ended up checking email and texts during the show. “Michael Buble is totally himself,” Dave told me.  “This guy is calculated.”

I don’t care who he sleeps with (Google says his girlfriend), or wishes he could sleep with, or who I wish he slept with. I don’t mean the effeminacy thing as a criticism, either–that can be really hot in a guy.

He finished his set with “My Way.”

You can’t sing “My Way,” especially if you’re in your early thirties, and come off as anything other than a kid trying to do it someone else’s way. It’s an old man’s song.  It’s Frank’s song.  “And now the end is near”? Give me a break. Might as well find a way to change the lyrics to “I’m not Frank.”

The coffee place where Dave and I did our post-performance analysis is just across from my daughter’s East Village dorm. She was feeling under the weather and didn’t join us. We finished our coffee.  He went to pick up his wife from a work event, and I went across the street to give a tired and slightly sick girl some daddy time.

We cuddled.  We watched a couple episodes of The Office on Hulu.  I sang her silly songs.  Put her to bed.

On the way home, I changed trains at Grand Central.

Walked down the steps to the 7 platform, and heard that voice and guitar.  There were no trains, few people. The sound gradually enveloped me as I descended.  The ceiling is arched.  When it’s quiet, there’s great reverberation there.  It’s actually a wonderful space for music.

It was everything that Not Frank hadn’t been at the expensive show. Right there in the subway. The miracle, again.

And this guy, this artist, who stopped singing and called me a fucking asshole?

He was doing it his way.

I love New York.

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Filed under alternative venues, and everything, gay issues, life in NY, music in subways, New York life

Tonight (3/16): Weber & Beatboxing & Juggling &, &, &

If you’re a cellist or cello-music lover, you’re probably familiar with the delightful Carl Maria von Weber Adagio & Rondo, arranged for cello and piano by Gregor Piatigorsky. Lovely & fun short virtuoso salon piece.

It probably never occurred to you that what it needs is a beat boxer beatboxing during the Adagio and a juggler juggling during the somewhat circus-like 6/8 Rondo.  Me neither. Sounds like great fun, something very different. Talk about alternative presentation of classical music!

Luckily, it did occur to the minds behind the New York musicians’ collective the International Street Cannibals.  Who have invited me to perform with them.  So I’ll be playing that Weber-Piatigorsky piece, with beatboxing and juggling, as part of tonight’s 8:30 PM program, “&,” at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, an important NY alternative performance space as well as an Episcopal Church (directions and Google map).

Lots of other music and performance art on the program, including the slow movement of the Schubert Death & the Maiden quartet, the timbres darkened by having the second violin part played on viola and the viola part played on a cello.  (I’ll be holding down the actual cello part on a cello, albeit a carbon-fiber one.)  There will also be a Shostakovich Prelude & Fugue performed by the awesome pianist Taka Kigawa, the wonderful composer Gene Pritsker’s new Sex & Death, Dan Barrett‘s arrangement of Heart & Soul . . . and much, much more.

The music is all something & something.

And it’s music & dancing, music & juggling, music & devil sticking, music & . . .

No wonder the program is titled, simply,

&

Wednesday, March 16
8:30 PM
St Mark’s in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street, NYC

Admission $15

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Filed under alternative classical performance, alternative venues, Eric Edberg performances, non-traditional concerts

March 21: Playing Bach in the Subways, to Celebrate Bach’s Birthday

I’m going to play Bach. In a New York City subway station (probably the uptown side of the 1/2/3 96th St. station). On Bach’s birthday–Monday, March 21.  I’ve never played in a subway before, but I’m looking forward to it.

Dale Henderson, the Bach in the Subways cellist, invited me.

You, too, if you’re a musician and going to be in New York. (Here’s Dale’s invitation on Facebook.  He’s also on Twitter.) What a great way to celebrate Bach’s birthday!

Dale Henderson at the 96th St 1/2/3 Subway Station on March 7

A week ago tonight (Monday, March 7), I’d been to that great Tyondai Braxton/Wordless Music Orchestra concert at Tully Scope. I usually walk home from concerts at Lincoln Center–it’s about 26 or 27 blocks, a bit over a mile and a quarter. But I’d stopped at Trader Joe’s and had a bag of groceries, and my personal trainer had really earned his money earlier in the day. I was tired. So I got on the subway, and got off at 96th St.

And, to my surprised delight, there he was. I’d read about him on the Wall Street Journal and CNN sites. He wants to share classical music with as many people as possible, so he plays Bach Suites in subway stations, accepting no money, handing out postcards about the project.

He was playing the Prelude of the C Minor Cello Suite, with love and commitment. I was so excited–I’ve been wanting to meet him and hadn’t gotten around to tracking him down.  Such serendipity–if I hadn’t bought groceries, or wasn’t tired from working out, I would have missed him.

When he finished the Prelude, I introduced himself. We had a great chat, and he told me how he wants to get as many musicians as possible to celebrate Bach’s birthday by playing in a subway station anytime (midnight to 11:59 PM) on Monday, March 21. So of course I said yes–I’ve been wanting to play in the subway, just for fun, and have just been waiting for the weather to clear up.

Then Dale wanted to get back to his Bach, and played the Courante from the G Major Suite, one of my favorites.  He let me take a video with my iPhone (I’m waiting for him to look at it before publicly posting in on YouTube).  Trains came and went, and he kept going.  The movement finished.  As my groceries and I headed home, at the other end of the station I heard the lilting arpeggios of the same suite’s Prelude, which gradually faded as I walked up the steps and into the noise of Broadway on the Upper West Side

(Once I’ve decided when I’ll be playing, I’ll post it here and on Facebook.  If you’re going to play, let me know where and when–I’m going to try and get around with a camera during the day.)

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Filed under alternative classical performance, alternative venues, Bach in the Subways, Bach Suites, cellists, Dale Henderson, music in subways

Chamber Music, Dancers, and a Blue Moon Valentine’s Day Show (Sabbatical Journal VII)

OK, catching up on my musical adventures.

The last event I wrote about was the Dueling Fiddlers at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) on Sunday Feb. 6. After a flurry of attending something virtually every night since I arrived in NY mid-January, I took a few nights off.  I was moving from one place to another, and perhaps there are only so many events one can attend without a bit of time to mentally relax.

Thursday Feb. 10 made for a difficult choice.  Richard Stolzman was performing at LPR, and there was an Ecstatic Music Festival show at Merkin, both of which I really wanted to experience.  I opted for making music myself, and accepted an invitation to read string quartets with three fine New York freelance musicians.  Each around my age (50s), each getting a lot less work than before.  None seemed bitter, though, and all four of us were happy to sit in a living room, reading Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven.  The others have played together for years, and there was the kind of old-friends bickering about how the chairs should be arranged, where the lamps should go, which volume of Haydn to start with, etc.  There are so many Haydn quartets that few of us who don’t play string quartets for a living are familiar with all 68 of them.  There was such joy among us, as twists and turns, unexpected modulations and surprising dynamics presented themselves.  “Oh, wow!”  “That’s fantastic!”  Whatever life’s challenges, professional or personal, playing chamber music with friends (old or new) seems to make it all better, at least for a while.

I was playing the cello again on the evening of Friday Feb. 11–improvisation and Bach as part of the music for Robin Becker’s Into Sunlight work-in-progress modern dance showing at the 92nd St. Y.  Playing for dancers, watching and responding to them, is such a stimulating experience, very different than playing a concert.  A blog post about that difference is in the works.

So it was Saturday Feb. 12 when I again heard others perform.  Back at Drom in the East Village, I had dinner while listening to the Blue Moon Ensemble perform what the club billed as a St. Valentine’s Day Special, with music “dedicated to love and lovers.”  “Mashups” (here less the overlap of multiple, formerly discreet pieces, and more the close juxtaposition of music from differnt genres) and “remixes” were the spirit of the evening. Early jazz, progressive jazz, traditional classical music, Byzantine chant (arranged for instruments) . . . a wonderful array, played with enthusiasm.  The Blue Moon combines the forces of a traditional jazz sextet (trumpet, sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) with violin, cello, and clarinet.  It makes for lots of interesting combinations.

I got there after the show had started, but thankfully there were several empty tables, including one with no “reserved” seat sign on it, so I didn’t have to stand or sit at the bar.  This being New York, though, the empty tables didn’t stop the waiter, once he finally noticed me, from asking if I had a reservation, and, when I said no, saying he would need to move me to another spot.  I pointed out the empty tables with “reserved” signs on them, and he somewhat sheepishly relented.  That was OK, but what really irritated me was that Drom doesn’t serve tap water, and charges $5.00 for a bottle of water.  I was quite thirsty, was going to get a glass or two of wine anyway, and found this annoying and inhospitable.  It’s the only place I’ve been in New York, or anywhere else, where they won’t serve you water along with whatever else you order.  I enjoyed the music but left irritated with the venue, which undoubtedly will influence my decision-making process when there’s a which-of-the-four-things-I’d-like-to-attend night in the future.

There was also another music-in-clubs phenomenon: overly loud people at the next table. As the evening progressed, a group of four very expensively (leather, fur) and fashionably-dressed middle-aged women formed at the table next to me.  They were excited to see one another, and once the fourth arrived, their conversation, in an Eastern-European language (Turkish? Armenian?), got so loud that to hear the music I left my seat and went and stood in another part of the room for a while.  They noticed, I think, and lowered their voices.

The social contract in a club is obviously different than in a concert hall.  A certain level of sound, not from the stage, is inevitable, expected, accepted, and generally not bothersome.  And usually people don’t talk, or keep their voices very low, while the music is being performed.  So this was unusual.  They were so obviously excited to be in one another’s company that they lost awareness of the rest of the room, it seemed.  When I moved so I could hear, they noticed, and became appropriately considerate.  And so I returned to my hard-won seat.

I like Drom. I’ll be back.  I do wonder if the irritation not serving free water triggers doesn’t outweigh the short-term benefits of the markup on bottled water (I did pop for a Pellegrino and at least one glass of wine).  But heck, it’s their business model, not mine.

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Filed under Blue Moon Ensemble, Drom, Robin Becker, sabbatical journal

Composers performing, performers creating, and the virtues of mingling (Sabbatical Journal IV)

“I envy you,” a friend who recently moved out of Manhattan told me the other day, “getting to go to all these things.”  I’ll probably envy me, too, once I get back to Indiana this summer.  Meanwhile, some what I’ve been up to since my last post, and what it has me thinking about:

On Sunday 1/30, I played some Bach and improvisations for a work-in-progress showing of Robin Becker’s developing Into Sunlight project.  We performed, in a studio at the LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and the Performing Arts, for the cast of a major Broadway show, along with some potential donors.  I’m new enough to New York that I’m still excited by proximity to celebrities; it was fun to look up at see faces I recognize from television.  Robin’s choreography is brilliant and moving.  I’ve seen it evolving since November, and it’s a privilege to be involved in the creative process.And it was fun to mingle a bit, especially with those who were enthusiastic about my playing.

Then a cab ride (I’m trying to avoid them, because they can eat up a lot of money fast) to another emerging East Village alternative venue, Drom. Like [le] poisson rouge, it’s a very appealing space, well designed, beautiful bar, great lighting, etc., described by co-founder Serdar Ilhan on its website as a “home for eclectic and underrepresented genres of music, a place where the destination [is] the journey itself.  That’s where the name Drom comes from; in the Romani (Gypsy) culture, a drom is both a journey and a road.”

What brought me, spending money willy-nilly on a cab, was the Composers Concordance 2nd Annual Composers Play Composers Marathon, which had already started when I finished up on the other side of town. Nineteen composers, nineteen performances, each with the composer performing, either solo or with a small ensemble.  (I got there late; the first of the three sets may have included an additional piece in honor of Milton Babbitt, who had just passed away). A wide array of musical styles–eclecticism at it’s best, I’d say.  I absolutely loved the celebration of composer/performers and performer/composers.

The thing that is so stupid about current classical music training, and one of the cancers that has eaten away of the vitality of classical music, is that we’ve made composers and performers into different species. It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.  Nevertheless, you aren’t a healthy, whole musician without creating and performing.  And serious art music in western culture might have stayed in a more audience-connected culture if new music hadn’t been artificially isolated in the academy. I can go on and on and on about this.

But this event was a dose of the antidote. And as with my LPR Metropolis Ensemble trip a couple of nights before, it was standing room only.  OK, for my 52-year-old feet’s sake, I’ve got to get to these places early so I can sit! (Which I will do tonight at LPR.) There were some great couches in the lobby, though, so I did get a bit of relief at times.

What’s great about these venues is the mingling along with the drinks and food.  I met and chatted with a number of the composers and additional performers.  Wonderful time.  The social aspect of the event made it much preferable to me than sitting in, say, a university recital hall for a similar new-music marathon with two intermissions.  That would take a big commitment, along with steely resolve.

On the other hand, a commenter on my previous post points out that club venues like this can be cliquish.  If alone, a traditional hall’s anonymity is more egalitarian. I met a friend at this event and ran into another, so perhaps my experience would have been different otherwise. It’s a good point; I’m not as enthusiastic about this evening’s solo LPR excursion as I would be if I were going with or meeting a friend.

Tuesday night I went to an actual old-school night club, Club Cache, in the basement of the Edison Hotel near Times Square, to hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a big band playing early jazz on period instruments (enthusiastic New York Times articles here and here).  This was no chance happening; introduced by mutual friends, I’ve gotten to know the extraordinary Andy Stein, who plays violin and saxophone in the group.  I walked in and thought, “I feel like I’m in a club from Boardwalk Empire.”  Surprise! Turns out that these guys recorded much of the music, and appear in (at least) the opening episode.  I loved their gig, and it struck me funny that the period-instrument movement, so important in classical music these days, reaches even into jazz.  Or, rather, has a parallel there in the person of Mr. Giordani, who Andy tells me is as passionate and knowledgeable about the instruments and performance practice of early jazz as any treatise-addicted early-music fanatic.

The music was great, and so was my surprisingly inexpensive ($12) seafood salad ($15 food and drink minimum).  I might have felt lonelier here had I just walked in by myself and not had Andy chatting with me on breaks. But–and this is what I think is brilliant and why I’m writing about it–Vince came over during a break when Andy was not keeping me company, introduced himself,thanked me for coming, asked what had brought me there, and chatted with me. As far as I could tell, he worked every table in the room.  As is the case with any good networker, he seemed genuinely delighted to meet me, and everyone else, and to enjoy hanging out.

And so, otherwise a stranger, I was mingled with. Not ignored. Since I was nuts about the music, I’m wanting to take friends there.  And I know that even if Andy isn’t there, Vince is sure to come by and chat.  Definitely an attracting factor, and definitely something all of us working with small venues would do well to model.

 

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Filed under alternative venues, Andy Stein, Composers Concordance, Drom, jazz, Le Poisson Rouge, performance practice, Robin Becker, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks