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Brooklyn - A Classical Portrait

16 May 2017

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New York City has five boroughs, but when people say “The City,” they mean Manhattan. The other four have always been “the outer boroughs,” full of people who make their way into Manhattan to work, eat out in the better restaurants, and enjoy all the culture New York is famous for. It’s a Manhattan-centric world. Or at least, it has been.

Welcome to Brooklyn. Powered by that greatest of all drivers in New York City—real estate—in the past decade Brooklyn’s demographics have been transformed. An explosion of high-end housing in downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg, along with the transformation of much of the Brooklyn waterfront, has lured people priced out of Manhattan to a borough that’s diverse, livable, cultured, and still affordable (just barely).

The influx of culturally enthusiastic and curious residents has created a place for the arts to flourish. Brooklynites are staying in their home borough when they go out at night, and supporting cultural institutions that are now luring Manhattanites across the water to see what’s happening in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn’s classical music venues, old and new, are figuring out ways to bring these audiences in and show them something traditional in a new way, or something new in an untraditional way, or some of all of those things. They’re asking questions about programming choices and ticket prices and seating arrangements, and all coming up with different answers.

Brooklyn Academy of Music

For years, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), one of Brooklyn’s oldest cultural institutions, ran a bus from midtown Manhattan to its home in Fort Greene. BAM is two blocks from a major subway hub, but those two blocks seemed like too much to walk for some.

These days, the BAM bus is gone, the subway hub is also a mall, there’s an NBA arena a block away, BAM has three buildings, and is at the heart of the Brooklyn Cultural District—a $100 million city development project that focuses on arts organizations, affordable housing, and public spaces.

Classical music is part of BAM’s very eclectic programming, and is usually part of something else—opera, dance, or theater, said BAM president Katy Clark. “We’re very much interested in the way genres collide.” A few seasons ago the Debussy String Quartet shared stage with Australian acrobat troupe Circa, for example, each interpreting Shostakovich in its own way. And BAM often plays host to Baroque operas staged by Les Arts Florissants and ballets by Mark Morris.

“We want to present music in its many forms,” Clark said, “and a lot of that is driven by architecture. The Gilman is the city’s most beautiful opera house.”

BAM’s audience has never been the same demographic as a typical Manhattan audience, she added. They’ve always been younger, more adventurous, and less affluent. That’s why even today, one-third of all tickets are under $35. Most events offer a wide range of ticket prices. BAM’s three buildings are all set up as traditional theatres with seats.

Clark said just over half of BAM’s audience are Brooklynites, and the rest are mostly from Manhattan. That’s a recent development. Fort Greene is now full of high-end restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings, where BAM is partnering with developers to make sure its neighbours know what’s coming up. “People are walking around late at night; the whole area feels comfortable and vibrant,” Clark said.

National Sawdust

Perhaps no recent Brooklyn venue has opened to more buzz than National Sawdust, which debuted 2015 in Williamsburg, the poster-neighborhood for hip young gentrification. David Lang, John Zorn, Meredith Monk, Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson—a who’s who of the new music scene—are among those on the artistic advisory board, and composer Paola Prestini is executive and creative director.

The 13,000-square-foot venue, a renovated sawdust factory, includes rehearsal and development spaces, a recording studio, and a trendy bistro. About half the events in the performance space are classical music, according to Courtenay Casey, vice general manager and senior director of artistic planning, with a clear preponderance of new music.

There are 350 to 400 events a year, and most nights are double-booked. Many of the performances are planned by curators in different genres; about a quarter of them work in classical music. There are also residency programs for 12 artists a year, including commissioning support and concerts. Casey remembers one night when a string quartet was playing Bartok for the first show and pop singer Kimbra was the second show. “About 20 people came to both,” she said. “That’s what we want to be.”

The performance space holds 250 standing, 150 chairs, or 95 in a cabaret configurations with tables and chairs. “We realized audience members anticipate what a show will be depending on how the room is set up,” Casey said, so club music is standing and classical music is seated. Ticket prices range from $29 to $35 and up.

Brooklyn is definitely the biggest audience base, Casey said, and locals get a break on ticket prices. But Manhattan audiences do come when it’s something they specifically want to hear. The advent of Uber has helped drive some of that attendance, because New York’s yellow taxis don’t cruise for fares in Brooklyn. Ages range from people in their 20s—who like the club vibe of standing room—to opera fans in their 50s and 60s, who like the eclectic programming.

“People will go where the music is that they want to hear,” Casey said. But the ultimate idea is to make National Sawdust a music destination where people come to hear whatever is on that night. It’s a goal they’re still working on.

 

Roulette

Roulette began in the late 1970s as a 75-seat venue in the TriBeCa apartment loft of one of its founders. It was lean and nimble and alt and risky. Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, Yusef Lateef, Kaija Saariaho and John Zorn made music there. But it was also in a residential building, and zoning laws are such that eventually they had to leave. So in 2011 Roulette took up residence in a 400-seat theatre with a classic proscenium arch—housed in a YWCA built in 1928.

“Suddenly we were in a million-dollar facility with overhead and staff,” and about 120 events a year, said David Weinstein, director of special projects and one of the founders. “We had to become more Manhattan-y to meet those new standards.”

But it has not strayed far from its musical roots. “A lot of what we do is edgy, experimental, not easy or even necessarily fun, so you get an audience of 50 people. But you’re glad, because the musicians get paid and something gets born,” Weinstein said.

To balance that out, Roulette also programmes jazz and world music, and classical music. Plus, there are several curated series and artist residencies offered every year. “We want to energize people to try new things and feel supported and comfortable. But I also want everyone to have a nice, quiet room that is appropriate for listening.” That means the audience is seated, and there is just one show a night, so artists are not rushed, and can mingle with the audience afterwards. Tickets range between $15 and $30.

“People who are used to performing in a dingy space may overreach or misunderstand what’s great about their work, but a space like this can be a little leap forward for them, encourage to up their game a notch and be a bit more ambitious in scale. When someone succeeds, it’s super inspiring.”

Roulette is very much artist-driven, meaning most people who come are fans of the performers, know exactly what they’re going to hear, and have no problem getting on the subway and going to Brooklyn to hear it. The staff is still trying to figure out who is moving into the cluster of high-end high-rise apartment buildings going up in downtown Brooklyn, and what they want to listen to. For now, they’re working with developers to introduce themselves to the new neighbours.

 

Bargemusic

Bargemusic, an old coffee barge permanently moored in the East River at the site of the old Fulton Ferry, has been a venue for chamber music for 40 years, showcasing young talent and, originally, exclusively classical repertoire—Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, and so on.

The barge seats about 75 people, and lately artistic and executive director Mark Peskanov has been cutting that down a bit because he prefers the acoustic and ambience with a smaller audience. “This is a very different place, and people have very different expectations,” he said. “You have that very special view of the river and New York City, and that feeling of gently rocking—sometimes not so gently. The stage area puts the performers so close to the audience, it's like a petting zoo.”

Peskanov, a concert violinist, took over in 2005 as artistic and executive director from founder Olga Bloom, and has expanded the repertoire with the Here and Now series of newer works, some jazz and early music, and free family concerts on Saturday afternoons.

Bargemusic is an important first step for many young musicians; it’s got a group of regular performers, but “it’s not like a private club,” Peskanov said. “If you are a fine performer, sooner or later we will invite you here.”

It’s a first step for many young listeners, too. It suddenly finds itself in the middle of the growing DUMBO neighborhood and a brand new waterfront park, and the free concerts attract a lot of parents with little kids. Yes, they do talk and wander and cry, Peskanov said, but “they eventually learn how to behave, and meanwhile they are hearing music played at an artistically high level and it is sinking in.”

The audience is “tourists and neighborhood people, people who wander in from the park, people who have never listened to classical music and real connoisseurs,” Peskanov said. “The barge is just an amazing experience. People tell me they feel like they’re on the king’s barge, like royalty. This is what chamber music was made for.”

Bargemusic presents about 200 concerts a year. Tickets are $40 to $45, with discounts for students and seniors. The seats are arranged in many configurations, but it’s all chairs.

Peskanov added, “I love playing here myself. It’s great to have such close communication within such an intimate space. I often ask how many people have heard a piece for the first time—something typical like Mozart—and a lot of people raise their hands. So for them I have played a world premiere.”

 

LoftOpera

Unlike most of the other classical music venues in Brooklyn, LoftOpera has taken a very conscious turn away from new music. “We always wanted to take a populist stance and also bring people to the classics,” said Brianna Maury, the general manager and cofounder. Their audience is mostly first-time opera goers, and producing works whose names people recognize adds a bit of familiarity. “These beautiful masterworks are also more accessible than new music,” she said.

LoftOpera was founded by Maury, her stepbrother Daniel Ellis-Ferris, and his classmate at The New School Dean Buck, basically on a dare. (“We dared ourselves to do a production of Don Giovanni in 2013 and it sold out.”) It has since grown from two events a year to four, with productions like Così fan tutte and Tosca, and coming up later in 2017 Pagliacci and Bluebeard’s Castle. Each one is an original production, with six performances. There is seating for about 500 on benches and all tickets are $30.

Each production is in a different venue in Brooklyn, typically hidden-away spaces in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick—areas Maury says are “not really gentrified the way other parts of Brooklyn have been.” The locations add to the sense of adventure. “We want to strip away the pretense of going to a place like Lincoln Center,” said Maury. “Maybe to get here you’re on a subway line you’ve never taken before.”

The singers and orchestra are recruited by music director Sean Kelly, who also teaches voice in the U.S. and Italy. Musically, they have, for the most part, enraptured New York critics.

They’ve enraptured audiences as well. Maury said her novice audiences (almost all Brooklynites, with a smattering of visitors from the Upper West Side of Manhattan), many of whom have only heard music in clubs before, sit quietly because “they’re listening so intently that they’re on the edge of their seats. They clap at all the right places—actually, they hoot and holler after the arias, which is how it used to be in the old days.”

Many first-time opera goers come for date night, and that is very much by design. LoftOpera markets itself on event sites like Thrillist, Flavorpill, GILT City, and Fever as a romantic, classy, yet affordable date. As a result, “We get couples making out in the audience,” said Maury. “We have even caught people having sex in the bathrooms. That’s how we know we’re successful.”

It’s the sort of thing that would get you thrown out of Lincoln Center. Welcome to Brooklyn.


Beth Adelman


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