On a freezing night in December, a bundled-up young crowd filed onto benches in Mast Chocolate’s factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They drank wine and ate candy while a 32-piece orchestra sounded the opening notes of Verdi’s “Macbeth,” presented by the three-year-old LoftOpera. Though the mood was relaxed — toppled beer bottles clanged and a DJ played during intermissions — the actors were no amateurs. As the tragedy unfolded, leads Craig Irvin and Elizabeth Baldwin, their resonant voices hanging in the cavernous industrial space, commanded the sparse, rocky set. It wasn’t long before the striking location receded behind the vivid production.
In New York, high art thrives far from Lincoln Center in similarly offbeat locales. Across the city, chamber groups perform in restaurants and pianists give parlor concerts, drawing the fresh-faced audiences that concert halls covet. A tour of these shows creates the impression that classical music, often derided as near death, is thriving.
While concerts have long popped up in parks or artist lofts, the current wave dates to 2008, when Le Poisson Rouge opened in Greenwich Village. It took the then-radical stance that Bach and beer could coexist, hosting string quartets in a cabaret setting. Music critics fawned, the Metropolitan Opera held downtown recitals, and a new generation of listeners fell for Stravinsky. Le Poisson Rouge still puts classical shows on its eclectic calendar, but the buzz has shifted to National Sawdust, an artist-run nonprofit venue that opened in fall 2015 in Williamsburg.
The space, a former sawdust factory, is a futuristic white box slashed with black lines and designed for rich acoustics. Its shows are wildly diverse — think flex dancers, baroque ensembles and Norwegian jazz musicians — but they share what creative director Paola Prestini calls “the spirit of discovery.” An accomplished composer, Prestini views National Sawdust as an accelerator for new work, giving artists the time and space to create. Through residencies and commissions, it supports multimedia projects and timely work such as the theatrical concert “Requiem for: A Tuesday,” a response to Black Lives Matter.
A rotating band of curators keeps the venue tuned in to what’s new. A few months ago, I heard pianist Timo Andres perform with violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who premiered compositions from his album “Words Fail.” In their early 30s, these are lyrical musicians whom I’d expect to hear from the nosebleed section at Carnegie Hall. It was a luxury to sit a few feet away. With a stylish international crowd and $16 cocktails, it was all very sophisticated, but not stuffy, and we were urged to linger in the bar and stay for the next show.
The level of musicianship is also high at Tertulia, a group that brings chamber musicians to restaurants. Julia Villagra, 33, started organizing the occasional concerts in 2011 to unite her favorite things — classical music, food, and friends — in warm, social spaces. Villagra, who played violin growing up, chooses places with a closed kitchen and good sight lines, and suspends dining service during the half-hour sets. It’s a casual atmosphere amid a serious listening experience, an environment that helps attract stars such as members of the International Contemporary Ensemble.
Musicians love the communal feel, says James Austin Smith, 33, an oboist who a few years ago became co-artistic director of Tertulia — not to be confused with the Greenwich Village eatery of the same name. “There’s a palpable sense that everyone’s there to have a good time,” he says. “There’s an energy that you can feed off of as a performer.” Most people in the audience aren’t very familiar with classical music and are open-minded, which Smith finds liberating. At a Cuban restaurant last fall, his group Decoda played a brash piece by Edgard Varèse that had gotten a mixed reaction in other settings. In a Tertulia setting, everyone thought it was cool, whooping in applause.
“People want meaningful, intimate experiences” that pull them away from screens, Smith says. “That’s exactly what chamber music is. We don’t need to pander because it exists for this reason.”
As cultural appetites change, the establishment has taken note. Last year, the New York Philharmonic launched an itinerant series called “Off the Grid,” hosting free concerts in unconventional locations. Its ensembles have played at a used bookstore, a rooftop bar and an Indian restaurant.
Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien calls it an effort to connect with millennials, who are encouraged to snap photos and order cocktails. “It is about the experience and the environment, not necessarily which specific pieces you’re going to play,” he says. Funded by an audience-building grant from the Wallace Foundation in 2015, the series began as an experiment, but VanBesien says that it is likely to continue.
Critics often ponder how to save classical music. That’s the wrong question to ask, argues Sam Bodkin, 27, the founder of Groupmuse, which puts on house parties featuring chamber music across the country, including in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and the District. “To your average person, that’s like saying, ‘Who’s going to save blacksmithing?’ ” he says. They don’t care. “It rather needs to be, ‘How can classical music save the world? How can it save our generation?’ ”
Instead of diminishing the music, small-scale concerts offer the chance to bring it into our daily lives. One Wednesday night, I walked to a house in my Brooklyn neighborhood for a Groupmuse show, which I reserved in advance online. In their cozy living room, the hosts had set up chairs and laid out snacks; guests brought beer and wine. After some mingling, Pierre Ferreyra-Mansilla, a Juilliard-trained guitarist, took a seat by the window and played two absorbing 25-minute sets. The hosts’ chocolate Lab seemed to listen too, barking after a Bach fugue, and we all laughed. Most of us were strangers, but the music briefly united us, granting a sense of community that’s often hard to find in New York.
Bodkin thinks such experiences are vital. “We need more beauty in this world,” he says. “We need more substance in this culture. We need more positive experiences.”
Dalzell is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.
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If you go
What to do
Chamber music house parties around the city, whose style varies by location. A Tuesday-night Soho show will be shorter and likely more refined than one in a Bushwick loft on Saturday. Groupmuses are also in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and occasionally Washington, D.C., plus new cities this year. $10 minimum donation for musicians. Reserve a spot online ahead of time for $3.
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker St., Manhattan
A black box basement space in Greenwich Village, LPR is arranged cabaret-style for classical concerts. Food and drinks are served at tables; cheaper standing-room tickets are also available. Tickets $15-$25.
Operas are produced in Brooklyn warehouse spaces. The bench seating is unreserved, so arrive early for a good view. Next up: Rossini’s Otello in March. Tickets $30.
80 North 6th St., Brooklyn
This modern, white space in central Williamsburg can be configured in different ways, such as café seating for chamber concerts. The venue’s bistro, Rider, serves cocktails and a vegetable-centric food menu during shows. Tickets $20-$35.
Off the Grid
Audiences don't know the location of these itinerant concerts until the day before. The Philharmonic aims for atmospheric, unexpected venues, such as a restaurant or bookstore. Enter an online lottery for tickets at the website above and sign-up to be notified about future events here: nyphil.org/forms/tickets/off-the-grid-invite-sign-up.
These performances are typically held in restaurants with a closed kitchen and good sight lines. Next will be a Baroque program in March, location to be determined. Tertulia also hosts occasional shows in San Francisco. Tickets are $70, which include a concert and three-course dinner.