International New York Times: Bringing Classical Music to the Club Scene

LONDON — The scene: a crowded pub in the London district of Islington. Waitresses nudge through the crowd of about 100 people, carrying trays of hamburgers and cheesy fries, as patrons — East End hipsters, young professionals, students — saunter up to the bar to get more libations.

Then one of the evening’s hosts asks for attention and introduces the live entertainment: a violinist, a violist and a cellist.

The musicians strike up their first piece, a Beethoven string trio. But unlike an audience in concert halls and auditoriums — where as soon as musicians pick up their instruments, the crowd falls silent — this bunch never quite quiets down. The musicians, however, do not seem to mind. Between movements, each member of the ensemble banters with the crowd and makes jokes.

Welcome to The Night Shift, a regular feature of London’s music scene. A rotating group of musicians from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the resident orchestra at the Southbank Center in London, stages these events on the last Tuesday of each month in a different pub.

“A classical music concert can be quite scary where you can’t make much noise, you can’t go to the loo, you can’t have a drink or a laugh,” said Louise Mortimer, a South African-born Londoner who has attended a number of Night Shift concerts over the years. “This, however, is a fun environment. I feel like when you go to a concert hall, you have to know a lot about classical music but here you don’t need to know, you just learn and enjoy.”

As orchestras and symphonies across the globe have been struggling to attract younger audiences to classical music, groups of classically trained musicians and conductors are taking their music to the people.

Though some have dubbed events like The Night Shift as classical clubbing — with musicians playing everywhere from clubs, pubs and libraries to galleries and even garages — others say they are part of a larger movement called indie classical, which also can incorporate everything from contemporary classical concerts in clubs, with mash-ups including drum beats and electronica, to classical raves at festivals.


“Indie classical is a larger phenomenon — it’s ways of doing classical music that are not the old ways,” said Greg Sandow, a music critic, composer and a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, in New York. “Certainly and deliberately it has overtones with indie rock that are homemade, new and out on the edge. It is the response of the younger classical music world.”

Whatever the discussion is over the moniker, what is not being debated is how hot the scene is at the moment.

Pianists like the Norwegian Aksel Kolstad host shows that fuse stand-up comedy with classical concerts. Irina Vasilieva, a Russian-born pianist based in Australia, frequently organizes Cappuccino Café concerts in libraries and art galleries in Perth.

In the United States, some 30 chapters of Classical Revolution — classically trained musicians performing in bars and pubs— have sprung up across the country since the first one started in San Francisco a decade ago. Opera On Tap, a similar group founded in Brooklyn in 2007 by opera singers, now has a chapter in Berlin and is looking to expand across Europe. Groupmuse is a Boston-based start-up that brings local classical musicians to play concerts in private homes; payment is by donation, and voluntary.

Musicians say they love the chance to get out of the concert halls and practice their music with a little more spontaneity — and to earn some extra income.

Even for conservatory-trained musicians, it is hard to find a full-time job, so young musicians are making up their own business plans, figuring out ways to incorporate their love of music with their social media skills and the entrepreneurial start-up/pop-up mentality that is second nature to millennials.

“The classical musicians who have come out of school in the last 10 years are doing it in some capacity no matter what sort of style — straight classical or others,” said Sarah Robinson, a flutist with the Helix Collective in Los Angeles and author of “Clubbing for Classical Musicians.”

“Everyone has done their show in an alternative venue,” she said. “It seems pervasive at this point. I think it is hard to find young music groups that don’t have some contact with it.”

Etienne Abelin, a violinist, composer and conductor who started Ynight — classical mash-up club nights across Switzerland — dates the staid atmosphere of classical concerts back to the late 19th century in Europe.

“Classical music became a way for parts of society to celebrate itself, but it just stayed static ever since,” Mr. Abelin said. “The situation of the concert hall, the silence, the applause, the situation creates an aura of how you listen to music that still today many people appreciate.”

But for younger people, used to going to gigs where there was more of a back and forth between the audience and musicians, orchestra concerts and all that they entail have not felt so compelling.

The Israeli-American cellist Matt Haimovitz has been credited with starting the trend of playing classical music in untraditional venues, dating back to his early 2000s tour of North America, when he performed Bach in pizza restaurants, coffee houses and punk clubs.

In 2001 the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon started Yellow Lounge club nights in Berlin and then rolled it out across Germany in 2004. That same year, the violinist Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, started Nonclassical in London, an evening of classical music, often of the contemporary variety, in club spaces.

“It is obviously natural for any artist to want to communicate their art to the same age group as them,” Mr. Prokofiev said.

He speaks from experience: After being frustrated with the classical world, he took time off to play in a rock band in clubs. Because of his exposure to how gigs got booked and marketed, he came up with the idea for Nonclassical.

After three years of doing occasional concerts, in 2007 his club nights became a monthly part of the London scene. Nonclassical has since held nights in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and a Nonclassical Prague is planned for the autumn.

“The generation coming up now in classical music are frustrated by the isolation of classical music and a lot have grown up playing other genres of music as well,” Mr. Prokofiev said. “I think there is going to be an overall increasing trend for more exciting, challenging and fulfilling live music experiences.”

The Night Shift, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, was founded out of the orchestra’s concern that those under 35 weren’t coming to shows.

Research showed that, apart from concerns about price and length, audiences were put off by the concerts because of “that feeling that you had to know something in order to be there,” said John Holmes, the director for marketing and development for the orchestra.

“And that lack of interaction between the artists and the audience, like that fourth wall you have in theater: Rarely do you have a conductor or musician address the audience.”

At first, Night Shift shows were held in the concert hall immediately after regular performances, then sporadically in other venues.

But in March, in part because of the popularity and desire for more regular gigs, the orchestra decided to have monthly pub shows.

Mr. Kolstad, a classically trained Norwegian pianist and stand-up comic, does a similar thing in Oslo. The idea for his Café de Concert series came to him while studying at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. There was, and still is, a rule that musicians who came to play for the series had to dress in jeans and T-shirts because “if they came in tuxedos or in black I would throw them out.”

He now has a permanent gallery space in the Norwegian capital, where he performs once a month, serving hot dogs and Champagne after the gigs, with D.J.s spinning tunes.

He opens the space to music students to perform as well.

“I do stand-up comedy between the pieces — about the composer, when the piece was played, when they wrote it,” Mr. Kolstad said. “No one told anybody that you should have a degree from Juilliard or Harvard to understand Mozart. Even he didn’t understand his music.”

The biggest learning curve for many musicians is the work involved in staging and marketing the shows.

“If you play a concert series, you just show up— they give you the time to be there, the audience is brought to you, you don’t have to talk to them, the chairs are there for you, the stands, even a page turner,” said Ms. Robinson, the Helix Collective flutist. “But with a club, most of the time they are not bringing anybody. That is your job, and you have to get the people who are interested in that kind of music.”

She added that musicians also have to function as their own roadies and technical engineers for sound and lighting, “but it is so much more rewarding.”