On Tuesday night, I attended two richly satisfying concerts without stepping foot in a concert hall. The first was a new music program presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at the Moonshine Room of the popular Club Cafe in the South End; the second was a performance by the up-and-coming Parker String Quartet in the Lizard Lounge, a low-slung basement club space in Cambridge. Next month, the Firebird Ensemble will perform in a local barbecue joint.
What is classical music doing in these spaces? It may sound quirky or even perverse, but it is in fact an excellent idea and a growing trend. Of course Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall are in no risk of losing their core constituencies, but they may well stand to gain some listeners if this practice continues.
The logic is clear. In recent years, it has been dawning on classical music presenters that the eternal quest for new audiences is being stymied by an image problem. Especially for young or otherwise uninitiated listeners, a major barrier to entry is not the music itself but the packaging. Concert halls are too often seen as solemn temples of high art governed by a formal, rigid, and altogether foreign code of etiquette. For many it is more than just a fear of clapping in the wrong place; it is a larger sense that a new subculture must be learned before they will be able to enjoy a live performance.
Tapping into some of the same logic, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (or BMOP) is in its third season of presenting concerts at Club Cafe. On Tuesday night, the space was packed with a lively audience. The atmosphere was bustling, with waitresses taking orders for beer and chardonnay as the players were setting up onstage.
This year, the Club Concerts are being curated and hosted by Lisa Bielawa, BMOP’s new composer in residence. This is good news for fans of the series, as Bielawa not only has an inviting stage presence as emcee but also a rich network of composer connections through her experience as artistic director of the MATA Festival of contemporary music in New York City.
Tuesday’s program was packed with music written in the last decade by Keeril Makan, Gordon Beeferman, Jocelyn Morlock, Roshanne Etezady, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Aaron Trant. The styles ran the gamut from the rippling, post-impressionist textures of Morlock’s QUOI??? to the highly structured freedom of Trant’s Dictit, which combined elements of 12-tone music with improvisation.
One highlight of the program was the introduction of Bielawa’s own Synopsis Project in which she will write short studies for about 20 BMOP players over the course of her residency. The first two in the series were highly engaging, and it will be interesting to see how this project unfolds . Bielawa herself is also a vocalist, and she performed an alluring excerpt from Beeferman’s West of Winter, singing in a vocal quartet for which she had pre-recorded the other three parts. Pianist Sarah Bob, violinist Gabriela Diaz, and percussionist Aaron Trant were the other brave performers of the evening.
Programs like this one seem to breathe more comfortably in unconventional spaces, where the freshly minted music can stand free of the mammoth shadow cast by the standard repertoire. The presentation format also seemed just about right. In a small but telling detail, the two Bielawa pieces on the program were being given their first performances but there was no mention anywhere of that weighty phrase: “world premiere.” The concert was more akin to dropping by a gallery where one could casually sample an invigorating swath of music from our time.
Alternative spaces are not a panacea - there can be obvious logistical problems, bad PA systems, obnoxious or indifferent crowds, and myriad other challenges - but they are spicing up the scene while allowing, at times, for a rare directness of connection with both new audiences and traditional ones. Ultimately, the battle for the next generation of listeners should be won or lost based on the quality of the music being offered and the persuasiveness of the performances. Sometimes this requires slicing through the traditional packaging that, when viewed from the outside, can too often be mistaken for the concert experience itself.
Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff
© Copyright 2006 New York Times Company