Classical music at a bar?

According to a story on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “Beethoven and Beer at the Happy Dog,” members of the Cleveland Orchestra have been playing classical chamber music since June 2010 at the Happy Dog, a neighborhood bar on the near-west side of town, under the name Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog. People love it, and the bar is packed every time they play. It gives customers who would never go to Severance Hall a chance to hear classical music and gives the bar customers who would not otherwise come.

It also gives the musicians a chance to make music more spontaneously. Orchestra players must necessarily pay close attention to very small details and subordinate their individual musicality to the ensemble as a whole. As rewarding as that can be, relaxation from strict discipline can be refreshing. Audiences in concert venues see musicians at their most disciplined. Audiences in the bar see them having fun.

The story observes that there is nothing new about taking classical music out of the concert hall and cites a group that played in non-concert venues way back in the 1970s. Actually, it’s much older than that.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra played both symphonies and popular dance music in various summer pleasure gardens during its off season as late as 1835. Classical and popular music were only beginning to be regarded as different kinds of music, and no orchestra provided full-time employment to its members until well into the twentieth century.

The orchestra’s principal violist, Carl Traugott Queisser, owned a pleasure garden called the Kuchengarten. Perhaps best known as one of the three most prominent trombone soloists in Germany, he also played viola in the world’s first professionally viable string quartet, was a member of the town band, and director of two military bands. Dissident members of the town band selected Queisser as their leader. He probably regretted that the resulting incessant legal battles cost him the chance to tour Europe as a traveling virtuoso.

Queisser and the Gewandhaus represent an ordinary fact of life for orchestral musicians in the nineteenth century. Not a one of them could make a living playing for only one ensemble or only one kind of music. Most of them had to make at least part of their living from non-musical activities. There was nothing unusual about orchestra members playing in a tavern or anywhere else they could find. After all, between seasons they still needed to earn a living.

Today’s top professional orchestra players have year-round salaries. Even so, many of them teach, conduct community groups, or play in other ensembles. The main difference between the Gewandhaus orchestra playing in pleasure gardens and Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog is that the Cleveland players do not depend on the bar gig for a living. Playing classical music in venues like that has become highly unusual.

The Cleveland Orchestra players have demonstrated that it’s good for them, good for the bar’s business, and good for the audience to play classical music away from ordinary concert venues. Now, the idea should spread. Cleveland has more than one bar that offers entertainment, and the orchestra has more than six musicians available to play at them. And of course, many other cities besides Cleveland boast of good professional orchestras.

Concert organizations have to work hard to get audiences to come to their concerts to hear the music. Their job would be a lot easier if musicians would regularly take the music to the audience in unusual venues.

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