A 'classical revolution' is spreading in Baltimore

Local ensembles are taking traditional music into non-traditional spaces

  • The Kubrick Quartet, a member of Classical Revolution, performs classical music at Joe Squared in Station North.
The Kubrick Quartet, a member of Classical Revolution, performs… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
October 19, 2012|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

It was a quiet night for a revolution.

People at the bar in Joe Squared Station North sat huddled over drinks and conversations. Folks occasionally strolled in to pick up pizza orders or headed to dining tables in the back. Few even glanced at the small group of musicians nestled by the storefront window playing Bach.

But those players, members of a national movement called Classical Revolution, soldiered on for several hours, dedicated to the cause of bringing a venerable old art form into unexpected places. Eventually, some patrons did take notice and moved closer to the performers to listen; one man danced, free-style, to the Baroque beat, beaming broadly as he moved across the floor.

The Baltimore chapter of Classical Revolution, which convenes on the first Sundays of each month at Joe Squared, is part of a growing alt-classical trend in town.

Other groups on the scene include the Federal Hill Parlor Series, which offers in-home concerts of vocal and instrumental music. Vivre Musicale has ventured into bars and art galleries with unusual repertoire. Outerspaces has carved out a niche in a studio/rehearsal space to play new works. And the Occasional Symphony aims to match music to specific holidays and venues.

"I absolutely love traditional concert halls, but you can have such different experiences in nontraditional places," said mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen, who founded the Federal Hill Parlor Series to provide musical soirees in residential and commercial spots.

Experiments with taking classical music outside its normal habitat have been on the rise. A decade ago, cellist Matt Haimovitz cut back on a high-profile international career to give recitals in such venues as Rams Head Live.

In New York, a club called Le Poisson Rouge opened in 2008 to showcase multiple genres and quickly became one of the hottest places for classical artists to perform.

There is no universally acknowledged name for this sort of thing, but the term "alt-classical," more often applied to musicians focusing on the work of contemporary composers, fits well enough. The emphasis is definitely on "alternative."

Classical Revolution

Classical Revolution began on the West Coast, where a violist fresh out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music found other musicians interested in playing outside the box; in 2006, they set up a regular gig at a San Francisco pub conveniently called Revolution Cafe.

Today, there are nearly three dozen chapters of Classical Revolution in North America and Europe. Baltimore's version was started by students and recent grads from the Peabody Institute, rallying around the motto proclaimed on the group's website: "Baltimore is a crazy awesome city. Classical music is a crazy awesome art form. Let's do it!"

The inaugural event was held last fall on a Friday night at the Bohemian Coffee House.

"It was totally packed," said Rafaela Dreisin, a trumpeter who serves as director of Baltimore's Classical Revolution. "Not everyone who came out got to play; there were too many musicians. We tried a couple of other venues after that. The weirdest place was a sports bar and grill, where people were definitely not expecting us. Then we ended up at Joe Squared, which we love."

The ensemble does not plan to limit itself to Joe Squared. Plans are in the works for concerts in the spring and summer in Mount Vernon Park. "It's being sponsored by Natty Boh," Dreisin said. "We're calling it 'Cham-boh Music in the Park.'"

Dreisin, who works for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program in inner city schools, also envisions a collaboration between Classical Revolution and the students.

Meanwhile, Joe Squared provides a steady home. The scene on Classical Revolution nights at that venue is fluid. Musicians drop by at various intervals. A flutist and a violinist might decide to try a duet; a group of string players might seek out a pianist (an electric keyboard is used) to tackle one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

The musicians cheer each other on with the kind of high-pitched whoops heard at rock concerts or on late-night TV talk show.

"We have a loose 'house band' of six or seven who always come," Dreisin said. "And there are always new people. We plan some programs, and sometimes, pre-formed chamber groups come and play through their stuff. But oftentimes, we just have 'chamber jam' — whatever that means," she added with a laugh.

Classical musicians are accustomed to being in the spotlight when they perform, thanks to the protocols of the concert hall environment. As pop and jazz players know well, anything can happen in bars and restaurants, where customers may not have music on their minds.

"Sometimes, maybe only five people outside of us will listen," Driesin said. I don't get too frustrated by that. Some musicians are not prepared for it. I can tell they are not very comfortable. But we're all about uncomfortable situations. That's the point. It's not easy."

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