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March 1, 2010

Small Spaces

As a recent Alex Ross piece in The New Yorker pointed out, alternative venues like Le Poisson Rouge are changing not only how people listen to classical music, but also who listens to it. If you venture out to one of these smallish nightclub-like places, you will see many more young people than at a standard concert hall, and they will be animated and friendly and filled with enthusiasm for the performances. Part of the liveliness is due to the fact that admission at such venues is only about $15 -- slightly more than a movie ticket -- but part of it is also attributable to the comfort and fun of the locations.

Le Poisson Rouge is a larger and more successful enterprise than most, and thus it can attract name musicians, but there are wonderful little equivalents tucked into most big and quite a few smaller cities in this country. In San Francisco, one of my favorites is the Red Poppy Art House in the Mission District, which often features performances by a group called Cultural Revolution. (If you are bemused by the radical connotations of these names, it is only because you are not from the Bay Area, where we have long since become oblivious to such things. For instance, when my stepson, who went to the Malcolm X Middle School in Berkeley, performed in Patience and Ruddigore there, I never even noticed how odd the phrase "Malcolm X Gilbert & Sullivan Program" sounded until I heard the laughter of East Coast friends.)

I have only been to the Red Poppy twice, but each time it was a delight. Last year I heard the Cultural Revolution quartet perform a late Beethoven string quartet as well as a very new quartet by someone named Gabriela Smith, who turned out to be a seventeen-year-old El Cerrito girl capable of producing work that would hold up against the young Shostakovich. (I was so smitten by her First String Quartet that I have been following her career ever since: she is now a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and I imagine you'll all be hearing about her eventually.)
This year, when I went back, I was treated to a marvelous performance by a group called Sqwonk, which consists of two bass clarinetists. You might think that a whole hour devoted just to bass clarinet would be boring or limiting, but you would be wrong. It's amazing what a variety of fascinating and indeed moving musical sounds can be wrung out of a pair of these entrancingly weird instruments.

The fun of the Red Poppy is not just in the good music, though. You get to pay whatever you wish at the door (I generally give around $10), and then you can buy drinks and snacks at a small bar and take them with you to one of the mismatched seats in the living-room-sized performance space. While the musicians are playing, you are likely to see some member of the Red Poppy staff fiddling with the lights or making sure some other aspect of the electrical system is functioning, and yet these distractions are not at all distracting. They add to the neighborhoodish, almost familial feel of the place; they make you want to root for the performers. And that too is part of the enormous pleasure such venues yield, to musicians and audience members alike.
March 1, 2010 8:39 AM | | Comments (0)

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