A 'classical revolution' is spreading in Baltimore

The Kubrick Quartet, a member of Classical Revolution, performs classical music at Joe Squared in Station North.

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."

Over the course of a Classical Revolution night at Joe Squared — the gigs typically run three hours or more — surprises can happen. Shodekeh, Baltimore's celebrated beatboxer, often stops by; when he adds his percussive vocalism to a rhythmically kinetic piece by Bach, interesting sparks fly.

The first Sunday gig in October for Classical Revolution coincided with the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's death. The musicians seized on that timing and offered readings from Poe's works as interludes between the music.

"A couple from the bar asked if they could read poetry with us," Dreisin said. "That was cool."

Federal Hill Parlor Series

Interaction with patrons is a given when the Federal Hill Parlor Series has an event, especially one held in a house.

"The Parlor Series started because I was walking my dog around Federal Hill, seeing pianos in windows, but never seeing anyone playing them," Ihnen said. "I thought: 'What if we performed in these houses?' "

One program Ihnen devised matches a reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" with vocal music from his era to complement a dinner party. Hosts are invited to collaborate with Ihnen on devising musical programs built around particular themes or culinary choices.

Typically, the musicians will perform three or four sets — "Nothing so long that girls in heels can't stand through it," Ihnen said — and the selections will be woven throughout a sit-down dinner or a buffet. There might be as few as eight guests, as many as 40.

"When you perform in a home, people are not sitting that far away from you," Ihnen said. "Musicians find it very different when you can see their faces. People can see you thinking, so you need to be telling a great story through the music. I want to curate programming that is interesting enough on Friday night that you're still talking about on Monday morning."

Ihnen is now working on a plan to present concerts later this year at the Sobo Cafe in Federal Hill.

"There are live-entertainment issues in Federal Hill," she said. "The new owners had to petition for a license so we could perform there. If they get it, we will probably perform on an off-night, when it is not too busy and people can listen and eat easily."

Vivre Musicale

Art galleries have also proved to be a good fit for the Parlor Series and other groups in the area, such as Vivre Musicale, which received an award from Chamber Music America and ASCAP last year for its adventurous programming.

In addition to performing in a more traditional setting, a church in Mount Vernon, this organization of young vocalists and instrumentalists (Ihnen sometimes sings with them) has held events at the gallery called 834 On The Avenue in Hampden, as well as the bar Jay's on Read Street and branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"We appreciate performing on a stage in a beautiful concert hall, but times have changed," said Jorge Toro, a tenor who co-founded Vivre Musicale. "We want to make the classical music world more interesting. We try to be very open and very liberal with what we do in terms of programming, our attire and where we perform."


Departing from convention comes naturally to the musicians involved in these sorts of ensembles. James Young, a composer and grad student at Peabody, is artistic director of new music group called outerspaces. Performances are held at the Mount Vernon Music Space, which has studios for rehearsal and recording, as well as a room for performances.

"There is no stage," Young said. "During our last concert, I could have reached out with my right hand from where I was performing to grab the audience. A raised stage has a chance of immediately alienating the audience, by literally placing the music on a higher level. We want to bring 'art music' down off its pedestal."

Like a lot musicians in town, Young collaborates with more than one ensemble. He has written music that will be premiered this month by the newly formed Occasional Symphony, which counts Dreisin among its board members.

"It's incredibly ballsy to do something alt-classical with a full orchestra," Young said.

Occasional Symphony

Founded by Norman Huynh and Stephen Mulligan, two conductors working on their master's degrees at Peabody, the Occasional Symphony is made up of conservatory students chosen by audition. The orchestra plans to perform on select holidays and other significant dates — with music to match the occasion — and in nontraditional venues.

The inaugural concert will be a multimedia event on Halloween. The roughly 50-piece orchestra will accompany the spooky silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," playing new music by Young and fellow Peabody composer Scott Lee, as well as excerpts from standard repertoire. The performance will be at the 2640 Space, a DIY performance spot used by many arts groups.

In March, the ensemble is booked at Port Discovery for a children's concert marking Dr. Seuss' birthday. Other places on a future venue wish list include Baltimore's World Trade Center, the Maryland Science Center and the American Visionary Art Museum.

"We want programs to resonate with the venue,: Huynh said. "Maybe a concert at the aquarium with works about the sea."

Don't expect the Occasional Symphony to try squeezing into a restaurant or bar, vying for attention.

"I like Classical Revolution. It's cool," Mulligan said. "But we're going for something completely different."

That doesn't mean something stiff. The orchestra, like the other convention-challenging organizations, plans to keep things informal as it continues scrounging for resources (Kickstarter campaigns on the Internet are common) and performance outlets.

"It feels normal to me to be doing this," Mulligan said. "People make art where they can and with what they have. It's exciting."

Alt-classical sampling

•Classical Revolution performs 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. the first Sunday of the month at Joe Squared Station North, 133 W. North Ave.

•Vivre Musicale presents its "Disturbia" program of trauma-related music at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 233 N. Charles St. A recital by harpist Jacqueline Pollauf will be held at 4 p.m. Nov. 18t at 834 On The Avenue, 834 W. 36th St.

•The Occasional Symphony makes its debut accompanying the 1920 silent horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" at 9 p.m. Oct. 31 at 2640 Space, 2640 St. Paul St.

•Outerspaces will next perform at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Mount Vernon Music Space, 1015 N. Charles St.

•For information on the Federal Hill Parlor Series, go to