Anonymous excellence The classical-music performers at Louie's Bookstore Cafe are top-flight, though often ignored.

June 21, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

In a story in Sunday's Arts & Society section about Louie's Bookstore Cafe, the name of a music group was misstated. The correct name is Helicon.

The Sun regrets the errors.

They perform every night for audiences sometimes receptive, sometimes restless. They endow the place with an ambience of refinement, yet they're treated as part of the help. Their ranks include some of the city's most talented players, but for the most part they labor in anonymity.

Meet the classical-music performers of Louie's Bookstore Cafe on North Charles Street. For a $12-per-night salary plus tips and a free meal, they play two or three hours each evening, week in and week out, with no expectation of ever becoming celebrities.


Among them are geniuses and scholars, virtuosos and yeomen, but at Louie's they all serve the same function - providing sonic wallpaper for a convivial downtown eatery where literary and arty crowds meet and greet.

John DeLauro, who bought Louie's from longtime owner Jim Rouse in March of this year, says he has basically continued the arrangements made by his predecessor.

"We present live classical music seven days a week, twice on Sundays, also jazz on Thursday and Friday nights," he says. "Eighty percent of the musicians are from Peabody. We pay them a flat rate and a meal voucher. The ensembles are different combinations of people who play together regularly, usually once a week."

Last week's players included a pickup trio of cellist Isabel Chao and violinists Lilit Yoo and Julia McFarlane. All three are present or former graduate students at Peabody.

For most of the year, Chao plays with her regular group, a string quartet. But since the other quartet members are out of town this summer, Chao, Yoo and McFarlane have formed a trio to keep their performance skills honed.

"Playing at Louie's is a lot of fun," says McFarlane, who graduated from McGill University in her native Canada before coming to Baltimore two years ago to attend Peabody. "You certainly meet a lot of people. There are some regulars who come every time we play. And kids love it. They always stop and gawk at us."

As a graduate student, Yoo is specializing in computer-music research and technologies. But McFarlane and Chao both have set their sights on traditionalorchestral careers. The competition for such jobs is fierce - only a handful of openings are announced each year, and for every one there are hundreds of applicants - so performing at Louie's is a way to keep up their spirits between auditions.

For Louie's, it's a windfall of talent.

"Although I got amazingly little feedback about it, the caliber of music was exquisite, because the caliber of music from Peabody is exquisite," says Rouse, who started the classical-music series in the mid-1980s as Louie's first owner.

"There was Ron McFarlane [no relation to Julia McFarlane], who played with us for 10 years," Rouse recalls. "At the time he was being reviewed as one of the greatest lutenists in the world. But basically he went unnoticed here. He would play from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Monday and Tuesday. Now he has a great concert career, traveling all over the world."

Another now-celebrated musician was Indian sitarist and guitarist Sonjay Mishra. Mishra played at Louie's for years before moving to Washington to work for the environmental group Greenpeace.

"In Washington, Sonjay met the wife of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who introduced his music to her husband," Rouse says. "Soon afterward he got a call saying Garcia wanted to record with him.

"Sonjay flew to San Francisco and made a CD with Jerry Garcia. But then Garcia died two weeks later, and because it was Garcia's last recording, Sonjay got a lot of press for it. A French movie director heard the album and asked Sonjay to write a soundtrack for him. Now Sonjay has contracts for three more movie soundtracks."

Among other Louie's alumni are Chris Norman and Ken Kolodner, who began performing at Louie's on the dulcimer and lute in the late 1980s and went on to form the early-music group Hypericon, which has recorded several successful CDs.

"The general quality of musicians there always astounded me," Rouse recalled. "We did mainly classical, because initially I had a big battle with [the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] over fees and copyright for jazz and pop. But I also had the idea of bringing classical music to a broader public, which was the reason for having live musicians.

"We started out having them just a few nights a week, then we had them every night. For the 16 years I ran the place, we had classical music eight times a week for two hours."

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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