You Tube clubbing

Last night at Le Poisson Rouge (the NY club where I seem to go all the time, to hear classical music) a cellist named Joshua Roman came on stage. He said hello, in the friendliest, most club-appropriate way, and then said he’d play the prelude from the third Bach cello suite. “If you know it,” he added (or words to this effect), “you know what I mean. And if you don’t know it, you’re about to hear it!” 

Then he played it, with just about irresistible verve. He’s a cellist from the YouTube Symphony, whose members had come to New York from all over the world, to rehearse andto give their first performance, at Carnegie Hall. More on that later. But Roman’s performance brought two thoughts to my mind. 

First, when you pay Bach in a club, it stops mattering whether you’ve played with correct Baroque style, or what fancy details of structure and history someone might elucidate in a program note. What matters is whether you communicate, which Roman certainly did. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about Baroque style should stop caring. You can hear blues in a club, and argue till dawn about blues style. But any talk about Baroque style now comes inside an expectation that communication will take place. 

Second, it really matters how you talk, how you introduce yourself, how you behave on stage. Again, communnication is what we’re going to expect. Roman knew exactly how to relate to his club audience. But two weeks ago, at the opening concert of the MATA new music festival at LPR, I heard a musical group whose members didn’t know what to do in a club. 

This was The Knights, based in Brooklyn, and full of energetic young musicians whose website talks about their “unique atmosphere of camaraderie” and their “sense of openness, warmth and trust” that “translates into an amazing amount of freedom, spontaneity and joy in performance.” And they’re completely sincere in saying this.

But at LPR, they came off as stiff. Why? Because they acted as if they were giving a classical concert. They didn’t speak to the audience. They bowed when they got applause, instead of saying “thank you.” They all dressed in black. Granted, it was informal black, looking a little different on each member of the group. But bands playing at clubs don’t normally dress in any uniform way. (I remember some Juilliard students of mine, years ago, playing in a club for the first time. They dressed in black, informally by concert standards. As soon as they got to the club and saw the other bands on the bill, they felt like geeks.) 

And the Knights had a conductor! Maybe some or all of the music they played needed one, but this was the final straw. It made them look impossibly formal. Which was sad. I kept thinking that if they were playing in a formal concert hall, looking and acting exactly as they looked at LPR, they might have come off as refreshingly informal. But at a club, with the far more informal expectations that a club creates, they looked and even sounded stiff (though they certainly played very well technically). In one piece, Product No. 1, a mildly crazy work by Andrew Hamilton — in which the group both played and sang music that sounded more or less like a Bach chorale, getting faster and faster and faster — they didn’t have a conductor, and at last they relaxed. 

I thought I saw where the problem might come from, when MATA’s executive director Missy Mazzoli spoke during the performance. This, too, was exactly what it might have been at Tully Hall, an official of the group coming out to address the audience, behaving exactly as she might have in a formal concert setting. She talked, understandably, about MATA’s mission, which is to further the work of young composers. But not about putting on a show! The mission, I thought, came first. 

This is hardly a surprise. The mission has come first for all the nearly 40 years I’ve been going to concerts of new classical music, and the thought that there might be an audience whose opinion mattered, and which ought to have a good time at these concerts, is really quite new. Not surprising, then, that the concert (apart from the Andrew Hamilton piece, and even though some of the other works were lively, and even had a beat), felt like a mission, and not like a show. 

(I’m not saying, by the way, that all club performancers have to be friendly to their audience. Miles Davis wasn’t, as more or less everyone knows. But an unfriendly club performer is unfriendly within a frame where communication is the norm. In effect, Davis might have been saying, “Well, you MFs think I’m going to talk to you, but I’m not.” Whereas the Knights seemed to be saying, “Hi, we’re at a concert, we’ll bow.”) 

Back to the YouTube Symphony. The musicians had a terrific time doing this club show, playing all kinds of music, while the very prominent young composer Mason Bates officiated as DJ, and sometimes as collaborator, improvising (as it seemed) with electronics while some of the musicians played. 

There was lots of energy, even though the musicians had been rehearsing hard, had been interviewed by press from around the world, and had a concert to give the next night. (This was Tuesday, April 14; the concert was the next day, the day I’m writing this.) But at the same time, the performances — apart from Roman and Mason Bates — were largely nothing special, apart from the ease that almost everybody showed in the club setting. (Exception: a flutist in a spiffy off the shoulder black dress, who would have looked fine — here’s that refrain again — on the concert stage, but seemed too formal for the club.) 

So I thought that any orchestra could give a club show like this. I don’t say that to demean the YouTube Orchestra, which at the very least is setting new high marks for media interest in classical music. And which actually had a club night for its musicians, which most orchestras haven’t had. Instead, I think the YouTube orchestra should be an inspiration. If they can have a club night, why not your local orchestra? Why not have one every month? It’s fun, and can only make friends for you.

One last note. We’ve talked on this blog (here and here) about informal performances, and about audiences that audibly react, or talk while the music’s playing. Understandably, some people worry that if the audience talks, people who want to hear the music won’t be able to listen properly. 

At LPR, informal though it is, I’ve never heard much talking. The audience, whether or not they’re used to classical music (and even once when a string quartet asked everyone to “get rowdy”), listens very quietly. But not at the YouTube night! There, for the first time at LPR, I heard a steady stream of conversation, from an open area in the club, between the tables and the bar. 

And who was talking there? Some of the YouTube musicians. And some of the honchos involved in the performance, from YouTube and from Google, YouTube’s owner, and from other major groups involved in all of this. Go figure! 

The talking, I discovered, didn’t bother me at all. I could hear the music easily, and just blocked out the background conversations, which in any case (while I sat at my table) weren’t happening right near me. Nor do I blame the people who were talking. It was their night out, toward the end of a very busy and exciting week. They had every right to cut loose. 

But still, it’s a lesson to us. Some of us worry that if we let the audience talk, it’ll talk too much. And here the audience did talk a lot —  but the people talking were the musicians themselves. 

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  1. Bruce Brubaker says

    Greg, as you know, there’s often a lot of confusion about change or even resistance to it — from “classical” performers.

    When we played Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at LPR, in the fall, one of the players vigorously objected to what I thought was very discreet amplification.

    I remember that, Bruce. Also I remember one of the musicians seeming doubtful about the venue. I have to be sympathetic. Her experience with classical music, up to that point, surely gave her other expectations. Still, it’s wonderful when people are open to new ideas and experiences.

  2. says


    I was curious about your position regarding talking during concerts. Do you think it is only appropriate in club-like settings such as Le Poisson Rouge, or would consider talking to be acceptable at Carnegie Hall as well?

    The reason I am curious is because I can’t imagine having people talking during a classical concert in a standard hall, i.e., a formal performance. Whenever I see concerts, and someone is whispering or their neighbor and unwrapping candy, I find it highly distracting. Perhaps I simply need to develop a better ability to concentrate. Call me crazy, but doesn’t that noise distract you as well during formal performances?

  3. says

    A few random thoughts:

    1. I’m not sure I agree that having a conductor in a club is inherently problematic. Surely big-band jazz often has/had conductors without it being a problem? There’s also a Brooklyn based rock group called This Ambitious Orchestra which gets conducted by its lead singer. It may be more of a question of whether the conductor knows how to handle the club environment.

    2. To what extent do you think different lighting would effect the appropriateness of different concert attire? An evening gown might look silly under generic lighting but striking under more dramatic lighting. The problem with all black is that it tends to be used to make the musicians disappear, but if the all-black uniform is done as a fashion statement (with well chosen clothes) it could be another matter altogether.

    3. Bruce — Clubs generally have bad acoustics. I wouldn’t take classical music into a club unless you’re okay with amplifying it, because chances are it will sound bad if you don’t. Not a problem for me, since I love amplification, but something for amplification opponents to consider. Plus, the amplification at LPR generally sounds really nice–they have a great sound system.

    Yes, if a conductor can handle the club environment, he or she might not look out of place. When I was a teenager, I went to Tanglewood and heard Charles Munch (God, does that ever date me!) conduct one of the Brandenburgs. I guess he thought the orchestra was playing it really well, and at one point he turned around and grinned at the audience. Not saying that’s what a club conductor has to do, but acknowledging the audience at some point would seem to help.

    As for those old big-band nightclubs…they were very dressy. When I’ve seen them in movies, the people going to the clubs are wearing evening clothes. They also were, some of them, pretty big. So then some formality on stage makes sense. In the kind of club we go to these days, everything is informal, and the norm for bands in clubs is not to be dressy at all. So formality on stage seems curious, at least to me.

  4. says

    I think it is vital for each “classical” organization to take ownership of their environment. Audiences approach concert halls as a sacrosanct space because they have been taught to do so, not because the flavor of the music necessarily dictates such behavior. Entering a formal concert hall may be a Pavlovian trigger to modern audience; in order to remind folks that music–all music–can be fun, relaxing, and rewarding we classical musicians need to leave our self-created ghetto of enforced reverence.

    I have disagree with you, Greg, about this: “First, when you pay Bach in a club, it stops mattering whether you’ve played with correct Baroque style, or what fancy details of structure and history someone might elucidate in a program note.” Why should venue affect what one cares about when listening to music? Either playing Bach with correct styling is important, or it isn’t. If it is important, then we need to do a better job of educating our audience about what those stylings are and why they should give a crap. If it isn’t important, we need to acknowledge history and move on.

    Glad you brought that up, Elizabeth. What you quoted from me is too strong. What I meant (and I hope I made this clear in my post) is that communication becomes the most important thing, more important than many of the judgments we typically make in the concert hall. The style a piece is played in might still matter, in a club, at least to some people, but things like that become less important. I’m talking here about my own experience. Someone else might feel differently.

  5. says

    Greg, I perform in clubs as well as galleries, theaters and concert halls. My last tour (three nights!) included hits at a Conservatory’s auditorium, a renovated church turned into a coffee shop, and a rock club.

    I always strive for communication, no matter what the venue. Sometimes I communicate, other times, I look back and realize what I might have done to have had a stronger connection to my audience. Sometimes I get into shouting matches with drunks. And one type of venue doesn’t allow for easier communication as opposed to another.

    We (musicians) are committed to the music first. Without that commitment, it’s all just posing. Greg, I respect you, but I don’t understand what else you expected from the incredible players you describe in this post.

  6. Ted Spickler says

    Sometimes even the formality of a concert hall breaks down the barrier between musicians and audience. I recently attended a concert of the West Virginia Symphony where a Mime (Dan Kamin) ended up having various sparring matches with the very funny and approachable music director, Grant Cooper. The audience ended up roaring with laughter and appreciation between concert pieces played with verve and precision by the symphony. The sound of a childs squeels of delight lifted the spirits of everyone. Afterwards the audience was invited to come forward and meet the crazy conductor and mime to talk about the concert. The orchestra members got into the act with good spirited lunacy. Most importantly at no time did I feel the essence of true music was ever at risk.

  7. says

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