The Difference a Venue Makes (Sabbatical Journal III)

Here’s a good question popping up in my mind.  Would you rather attend a musical event here:

Merkin Hall


or here?

[le] poisson rouge main space








The first is Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center on West 67th St. in N.Y.  The second is [le] poisson rouge on Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village.  I’ve now attend equally cool, progressive, moving-beyond-classical traditions at each, and I can tell you the space makes a difference.

Good day yesterday–some writing, a rehearsal with Robin Becker Dance for the Into Sunlight project, and some practicing.  A short nap and then down to the Village for the Metropolis Ensemble performance at [le] poisson rouge (LPR), the club that’s become New York’s prime venue for alternative presentation of classical and alternative classical music. LPR presents music of every possible genre and combination of genres.  It’s quite interesting to look at their calendar and see how one concert will be listed as “classical   contemporary classical   experimental   minimalism” and another “alternative   folk   indie  sad core   singer-songwriter   cabaret.”

Steve Smith in the New York Times described the event quite well in his review of Thursday night’s show (I was there for the repeat on Friday), so I won’t do a a blow-by-blow.

Both nights were standing-room only.  Tickets ranged from $15 for standing room (which is all that was available when I got there) to $35 for a table seat and $75 for the VIP area.  The LPR website says it seats 250, and there must have been at least 30 of us standing on Friday, so my estimate is 550 or more attendees over the two nights.  There’s an official 2-item minimum, so besides paying for a ticket, everyone spent a good bit on food and drinks. “Alochol is our patron” is one of the LPR’s mottoes.

My future-of-classical music brain found me wondering about the difference in attendance between the LPR Metropolis Ensemble events and last Saturday’s Ecstatic Music Festival concert at Merkin Hall, which I estimate was attended by about 250 people in a hall that seats 400. The tickets there were $25 or less, and you didn’t have to buy food or drink.

Of course, a sparse-looking night at Merkin would be a big night at LPR given the different capacities, so that shouldn’t be overlooked (LPR can hold a ton more than 250 without tables, but I’ve never seen it that way).  Few shows get two nights in a row at LPR.  The Metropolis Ensemble has a big following (and will be the subject of a future post).

Merkin, which is a great hall for traditional classical music, feels old-guard with its concert-hall standard regimented fixed seats, drinks and snacks relegated to the somewhat desultory lobby.  LPR feels hip and cool and loose.  Sitting with friends (old or new) at a table enables a shared social experience, quite different than you and your friends sitting in a line where you can’t see each other, between pieces you can only talk to the person on either side of you.  And, even alone, it’s quite nice to sip a glass of wine or a cocktail while enjoying a performance.

There were colored lights on the stage at Merkin, but I don’t see how you can make the place hip.  (Let me add that I love it as a traditional concert hall.)  More importantly, I think that the social element of musical events will prove to be increasingly important, and architecture that enhances personal connections will be increasingly important.

Our traditional halls were designed to enhance the connection between the (silent) individual concertgoer and the performance, or perhaps better put, the work being performed.  The model developed before we could listen in individual isolation to perfectly recorded performances at home, no coughs, rustles, or or noises.  That was then, this is now.  Live performances give us the opportunity for human connection.  Not just performer/audience connection, but people connecting with each other.

There’s a parallel with classroom architecture.  Especially with small classes, the lecture is becoming obsolete.  You can watch a lecture online just fine.  What happens in a good class that can’t happen online is interaction.  Not just the performer, I mean teacher, answering questions, but genuine interaction between the teacher and the students, and the students with each other (i.e., seminars and workshops).  So lots of us take the desks in a conventional classroom, set in their old-fashioned neat rows, and rearrange them into a circle, or semi circles, or conversation pods, etc.

Obviously the future of classical music lies at least in part in embracing the social and interactive nature of performances.  And in the aesthetic appeal of performance spaces.  Really interesting to me?  The audience at the Ecstatic Music Festival Merkin concert, which featured Craig Wedren, a singer-songwriter playing electric guitar, which I had assumed would attract a young crowd, seemed mostly middle-aged and up;  the Metropolis Ensemble LPR show had a much younger crowd.




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2 responses to “The Difference a Venue Makes (Sabbatical Journal III)

  1. Pingback: The Difference a Venue Makes (Sabbatical Journal III) | Eric Edberg | The Simple Strings

  2. Janis

    “Would you rather attend a musical event here: … or here?”

    Honestly, it depends on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I’d like the first, sometimes the second.

    And there are some downsides to the second — if it’s a social setting, and a newcomer determines that he or she isn’t of that tribe, they will not go back. The first setting is pretty tribe-ecumenical and is at least equally starchy for everyone, sort of like a public library. The second can be read as cliquish.

    I’d like to have the music be present in both venues ideally.

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