The ingredients for a perfect night out in Madison are fairly standard – cheap booze, good friends and great music.
That last item leaves room for subjectivity. But one thing night owls search for is music with energy, whether it be through a thumping bass, driving beat or soaring melody.
One Saturday night in December you may have wandered into Brocach, an Irish pub on the Capitol Square. Ten to 15 musicians are present in the venue, armed with instruments like violins, cellos, French horns and oboes. But the energy is undeniable. As a small string quartet performs a piece of classical music, a cellist’s hair flies, sweat beading down her forehead as she drives a bass line forward.
Not what you’d expect from a night of classical music? Then welcome to the era of the Classical Revolution.
From Bartok to bar scene
Chapters of the Classical Revolution, a nationwide effort that began in 2006, aim to bring live chamber music to audiences who might not experience classical music otherwise, similar to salon music performed at social gatherings in middle-class homes during the 19th century.
Co-director and UW grad music student Andrea Kleesattel brought it to Madison in fall 2010, when the group performed in the now-closed Mercury Caf?.
Since then, the Madison chapter performs at downtown venues like Brocach and Fair Trade Coffee, with musicians from the UW School of Music performing works from the likes of Mozart, Brahms, Vivaldi and much more. Typically, the group performs a specific program of music, followed by a reading session of selections brought in by musicians.
“Chamber music is meant to be intimate and fun and [have] a lot of energy in a small space,” said fellow co-director and UW grad music student Laura Weiner. “When you think of classical music you think of people in tuxedos not moving. But it’s actually kind of the opposite when you play chamber music. There’s a lot of physical energy that’s very noticeable.”
And that’s what they capture. Even with coffeemakers whirring or intoxicated 20-somethings shouting, the group maintains a level of intimacy between the musicians and audience, and between each other, while also sustaining a fierce level of energy in unexpected venues.
“Inhibitions are down for both audience and musicians, too,” said Weiner, who plays French horn at performances. “It’s really fun to play an instrument with someone drinking a beer three feet away from you and asking you afterwards about how the performance went and who you are.”
She described one night last year when she played in a horn quartet that was performing a piece by modernist composer Paul Hindemith. A woman, clearly intoxicated, approached the musicians afterwards, shared her passion for how “glorious” the sound of the horns was and bought them drinks.
“It was just a trip,” Weiner said. “I think had she been sober and at a different venue, we would have never gotten to know this woman who was so incredibly passionate about this piece that we played.”
In a similar fashion, a Brahms sextet might inspire spinning and dancing from audience members. Kleesattel, who plays cello, said onlookers frequently pull out their cell phones and take pictures as if they hadn’t seen the instruments of a chamber group up close.
Sounds and silences
Classical Revolution Madison usually sticks to classical greats of centuries past. Weiner said she was initially worried audiences would be adverse to hearing classical music in unexpected places, but she said she’s heard nothing but positive feedback.
“We’re not walking into a super college-y bar and insisting they listen to Mendelssohn,” Weiner said. “We’re not going to force ourselves on that scene. But honestly, people think it’s cool.”
And the group occasionally throws in a few surprises – a cello quartet once played an arrangement of a Metallica song and the December performance at Brocach inspired Irish tunes and dances.
Recently, Classical Revolution Madison has also started an effort to connect to other Madison-area performing groups, specifically the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Before the MSO’s weekend of performances in late January, which featured works by Prokofiev and Debussy, the Classical Revolution offered auditory tastes of both composers in their own concert.
“It’s neat to get a smaller ensemble taste of what’s to come that afternoon,” Kleesattel said.
But, oddly enough, considering the overwhelming volume a horn quartet can bring to places like coffee shops, Weiner said sometimes the most powerful moments during performances in public venues resound with the silence that follows the end of a piece. It’s merely an occasional occurrence, she said, but it’s a “palpable stillness” that inspires an incredible moment for both musicians and audience members alike.
“Even with the espresso machine going and people talking and drinks being ordered – there’s still occasionally this moment of really powerful silence,” she said. “I think that’s a really cool thing – to bring stillness to a very active place.”
Beethoven to beat heaven
This Thursday at 8 p.m., Classical Revolution Madison will host a performance at the Brink Lounge, 701 E. Washington Ave., featuring a night of classically inspired electro-acoustic music. Musicians in the Classical Revolution will perform a Shostakovich string quartet to open, followed by members of the club music scene NONCLASSICAL.
Performers include U.K.-based DJ Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of famed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, percussionist Joby Burgess and cellist Peter Gregson. Attendance is $5 for students, $10 for the general public.
Fitting with the Classical Revolution’s goal of repurposing classical music for a new generation of listeners, Weiner said the show will change up classical idioms.
“They’re extremely cutting edge in music right now,” Kleesattel added.
While the group is seeking nonprofit organization status and evolving from an open-mic format to more structured programs of chamber music, Madison’s Classical Revolution continues to build up a following.
“[Classical Revolution Madison is for] innovative people who enjoy new artwork, new dance works – things that are trendy artistically,” Kleesattel said.
And as far as artistic and political trends go in Madison these days, “revolution” isn’t an inappropriate word to use.
In addition to Thursday night’s performance, upcoming gigs for Classical Revolution Madison include March 11 and April 15 at Fair Trade Coffeehouse, 418 State St., from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. For more info about the group, check them out at classicalrevolutionmadison.org.