Unexpected music barely cuts through the clatter of Monday night dinner and drinks at the New York Deli. It could be Mozart. It could be real, live violins. It could be the sound of a cultural change.
In fact, it is Mozart, played by seven musicians who show up for an open jam session. They aren't all professionals. Some of them have never met before. But just by being here, they've joined a movement to make classical music more accessible to more people.
Classical Revolution began in San Francisco six years ago when some friends started playing informal monthly concerts in a cafe. Now, groups in more than 30 cities across North America and Europe present regular programs under the Classical Revolution name in restaurants and other untraditional venues.
The decentralized nature of the movement means that each locality operates independently. Most groups have open sessions as well as rehearsed programs by professionals. The Classical Revolution RVA grew out of a monthly performance series at Balliceaux, which started in August when several musicians of the Richmond Symphony were looking for ways to expose new listeners to classical music.
Ellen Cockerham, who serves as principal second violinist with the symphony, took the initiative to organize the programs. She eventually realized it would be good to have more than just symphony players involved, so she decided to affiliate with Classical Revolution and open up the performances to others.
Musicians "have a sense of urgency to play for the public," Cockerham says. Yet because the culture that surrounds classical music often is perceived as elitist, many people never choose or have the chance to be exposed to live performance.
By dispensing with many of the formalities of a traditional classical music concert and "taking the music to the people," she says, Classical Revolution musicians are "breaking down the walls of elitism and expectations" to focus on the music itself, which she believes can appeal to everyone.
Symphony musicians have been told that there's a cap on the number of Richmonders who want to hear classical music, according to Cockerham, and it's been reached, more or less. But she frequently encounters interest in people who've never been to a symphony concert. "This city is already extraordinarily active and alive, supporting local restaurants and artists," she says. "If classical music were [a more frequent] option, people would choose it."
Chris Bopst, who books shows at Balliceaux, is dedicated to cultivating this option. "I like to turn people on to this music," he says. "Young people, punkers, hippies and older folks" have come to the shows, and Bopst says he's had more people ask him about the classical programs than anything else.
The monthly programs at Balliceaux, called Classical Incarnations, feature rehearsed music performed by professional musicians. They typically present only one or two movements at a time, rather than entire works. The atmosphere is respectful but not pious, and the acoustics are excellent.
At New York Deli, the musicians stop in the middle of a piece by Haydn and move the keyboard to a new angle. Grinning, they pick up where they left off, pushing the tempo now that they can hear each other better.
The handful of people who've come for the event don't seem to mind the occasional stops and starts. Everyone else appears oblivious to the musicians, let alone to their identity as Classical Revolution RVA. But if they were only playing for people who already wanted to hear them, it wouldn't be much of a revolution. S
Classical Incarnations is Sunday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m., at Balliceaux, 203 N. Lombardy St. Free. classicalrevolutionrva.com.