Lately, one can observe a powerful transformation within the choice of venues for classical music performances. The economy may influence the real estate market in New York City negatively, but trends in the classical music scene are still following its most important rule: location, location, location.
These days, it seems that in order to be noteworthy, a musical event has to happen at a nightclub, preferably at a downtown Manhattan address. There are already definite favorites, chosen by some illustrious artists. Managers and public-relations agencies grasp the opportunity for a fresh approach for their artists' images, and thus have started booking events for CD releases and special performances.
There is an exciting cross-pollination happening when classical musicians come downtown to perform, and the downtown nightclub scene expands its acceptance of classical music. Previously, there was a clear divide between uptown classical events and downtown music. Now the classical performers and their fans can be cool too.
Two clubs that are embracing this trend are Le Poisson Rouge and the Highline Ballroom, both located in lower Manhattan. Known as venues for rock and pop music, their programs have been extended to include classical musicians.
Owned by a classical cellist and a violinist/composer team, Le Poisson Rouge underwent a complete renovation on the historical site of the Village Gate. A sophisticated sound system was put in place, as well as a state of the art performance space with flexible configuration of seating arrangements, engineered by the legendary John Storyk, according to the club's website.
Called a born impresario by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, the artistic director of Le Poisson Rouge, Ronen Givony, is a groundbreaker in bridging disparate entities in the music world and creating something new and different in the process. Prior to working at the club, Givony was employed by the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center as a grant writer. During this time he founded the Wordless Music Series which was dubbed by Minnesota National Public Radio as common ground for classical and rock music.
"The idea was to rethink the structure of both the traditional rock and classical concert," says Givony, who is not a musician, but an avid fan of all music. He enthusiastically paired classical performers with artists who perform rock, electronic music, and later pop in a series of hour-long concerts that were half classical and half rock.
The settings for these performances were informal, in places such as churches, meeting halls, and museums all over the city. "In keeping with the Internet-age demographic we were after, the series would not pay for print advertising and relied instead on e-mail announcements and our website alone," Givony said in an interview in Musical America.
Based on these experiences, Givony continued this concept of musical co-existence as artistic director of Le Poisson Rouge. In order to reach the younger generation of classical artists he wanted to attract to the club, he used Facebook to connect to potential performers. In spite of his success, he declines to take credit. "Classical music has constantly migrated downtown, probably since John Cage, and has been performed in other intimate spaces like Stan's Kitchen and Joe's Pub etc," he told me. "Our venue's efforts are by no means unprecedented."
He is certainly blessed with immense gut feeling when it comes to picking the performers. I heard some of my very favorite artists in personable and inspiring programs here at Le Poisson Rouge, like the piano performance by Lucille Chung and Alessio Bax of the entire four-hand Ligety piano works and Starvinsky's four-hand score of Petroushka.
A recent recipient of the acclaimed Avery Fisher Award, Alessio Bax, who is taken very seriously, is one of the headline-making artists of his generation, constantly in action. Just this past week, he released a noteworthy collection of Bach transcriptions of various composers, including one of his own. He shared a personal account before his performance of what kind of impact Petroushka has made on him and what it meant to perform it with his wife Lucille,who is a great performer in her own right.
In a conversation with Lucille Chung about performances like this, she said, "It was certainly a smart business move to attract a more varied crowd to classical music and many people are less hesitant to come to an informal place like LPR than to a formal concert hall. In fact, I myself had less reservation to invite people my age, who do like to go out here (downtown) anyway. It is the shorter works, the modern composers or a bit unusual programs like our four-hand pieces, that seem to really fit well into this environment. Anything that will be supportive of the intimate atmosphere you would expect to find in this kind of venue anyway .Yet even here, the intimacy has to be created by the performer just as on any other stage. The shorter programs cater to a shorter attention span, as well as to the greater expectation of the audience of greater opportunities to engage socially."
When I asked Lucille how she reacted to the serving of food and the noise from clearing tables during a performance, which made me cringe at times and hardly made me want to take a sip of my glass of wine, she shrugged. "That does not really bother me, once I am performing I am really focused. However the quality of the venue's owned piano, if one is not provided by a sponsor, could be a real deal breaker for me."
We do get the spirit of conversion and the thrill of venturing out and above long perceived barriers. The industry is fine-tuned and yields to subtle but intriguingly swift changes.
The Highline Ballroom is interested in ways to further broaden the club's appeal and the success of the classical circuit at Le Poisson Rouge a year prior to the Ballroom's launched series this summer was certainly an inspiring model.
Perhaps Jeremy Denk will do for the Highline Ballroom what Andy Warhol once did for Studio 54. While it was thanks to Mr. Denk's already critically acclaimed reputation as a fine classical pianist that Allan Kozinn of the New York Times reviewed his stellar performance, he also picked up on the interesting choice and the casual style of it. He did mention acoustic problems, including the quality of amplification and the disturbing noises from stacking dishes, but did acknowledge a certain curious effect.
Mr. Denk's performance was part of a classical series with an excellent piano sponsored by Steinway and Sons and he was clearly excited about performing in this setting, as he explained to me at an Upper Westside Starbucks shortly after his performance. " My manager offered me the venue and I got very interested. The audience was young and very open minded."
He said, "There is an impatience building up with the stuffiness of the concert hall. Classical music does not have to be experienced as being confined or stifling. At the Highline Ballroom, I enjoyed the immediate contact, the closeness with the audience very much. It made me feel at ease. The noise factor, which is certainly there, did not really bother me. I am not usually as relaxed as I felt here and I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Of course time will tell whether this is a fad or a brilliant concept, which in its simplicity will persuade audiences to be flexible and let the music speak for itself whether the performance is Radiohead or Schubert. In the meantime, according to Ronen Givony from Le Poisson Rouge, "The quantity of classical performances on my scheduled list is constantly growing."
The discourse about classical music within our pop-oriented society continues to be thought-provoking, as James R.Oestreich's recent New York Times article that asks "Who needs Carnegie Hall?" comments on these current developments. Obviously the interest lies within the strong reaction to the alternatives offered.
And the audience wins. Now you can enjoy your drink and listen to classical music as well.