Canadian Bands You Should Know: The Classical Revolution movement

Imagine, if you can, a typical setting for a concert of classical music. A cavernous, large concert hall is all bright lights, durable carpet, and well-dressed artsy professionals. Ties, evening dresses, pearls—all rushing in to grab their seats before some gracious donors from an oil company or arts foundation take the stage to give a practiced speech about this evening’s orchestral concert. You look down at the program, there’s a name you don’t recognize to start things off—a young composer from somewhere in Canada who just graduated from somewhere prestigious in another country. After that, some tried and true classics: Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, and finally Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto to finish things off, played by the current European master touring Canada. 

The audience claps diligently for the two pieces in the first half, filters out, has a quick beer or glass of wine, waits in the bathroom line, and then heads back in just in time to catch the second half. The orchestra and soloist play a strong rendition of the concerto. The audience gives a standing ovation with two curtain calls; a few stalwart members trying for a third. The event winds down and you decide not to stick around for the post-concert talk about some specifics of tonight’s performance and instead opt to head to the pub for a beer to round out the evening with your fellow concert goers.

Sound fun? Certainly. Orchestral music in a large concert hall is important and can still be an exciting, enriching experience. But now let’s imagine, if we can, the complete opposite experience—sitting a cozy, inner-city café/pub/bistro/something of the sort. The 40 seat room is filling up quickly, beer is being brought to the tables liberally, orders are being taken, and friends are chatting about this and that.

A musician arrives on the small stage, casually dressed and mic in hand. He begins with a joke and various introductions. Tonight’s “jam” will feature some readings of Schubert string quartets, a new composition by a local composer, some solo piano music by Erik Satie, and conclude with a group reading of a Steven Reich composition from all the night’s performers. The atmosphere is relaxed, with conversations continuing and orders being served while the musicians perform. All the participants take some time to talk about the pieces they’re playing and keep the jokes coming (some good, some bad). After all the performances have been completed, a few audience members order another round and the musicians linger to have a round themselves (not to mention the couple they might have already had). 

Many of us have experienced the first scenario, but the second one may be more of a mystery. It’s part of a new wave of classical music consumption, and it’s called Classical Revolution. Founded in November 2006 at Revolution Café (its namesake) in San Francisco by violist Charith Premawardhana, it has grown to over 30 chapters in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The idea is to present classical music in a totally different setting, more akin to seeing a rock band in a pub or going to an open mic night.


A group piece ending off the night at a Classical Revolution jam in Calgary. Credit: Jenn Weihmann. 

Canadian chapters exist in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and Calgary. Each city has its own way of organizing and presenting their concerts. I spoke with the founder of the Calgary chapter of Classical Revolution (CR), Matt Heller, to get his take on what it’s like to participate in and operate a group like this. In Calgary’s case, CR happens at Café Koi, a cozy Asian-fusion café located in the heart of Downtown. Audiences pack in tight for the often standing room only events.

Heller is a bassist in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and studied in Boston, Chicago, and played in the New World Symphony in Miami.  His perspective offers a good glimpse into both worlds, as he can be seen on the stage of the concert and the café. Heller says of the event “When we started doing this at Café Koi, we knew we wanted to create a casual setting to play chamber music, but we weren’t sure what it would looks like, exactly.” Now into its third full year of “jams” at Koi, Heller finds that “We’ve found a balance that generally works at Koi, but it can also change any given week, depending on the musicians and audience who are there.” 


Calgary Classical Revolution founder Matt Heller. Credit: Jenn Weihmann.

Heller’s point is one of the reasons CR has been so successful. It provides the audience and performer with a new way to experience a classical music performance. Heller agrees, commenting “Part of it is just the closeness of the audience, the lack of all formality that can serve as a barrier. I love feeling the audience respond, as individuals and as a group. It’s given me opportunities to collaborate and experiment with some unusual repertoire I might not have tried. And it’s been incredibly gratifying to see the kinds of collaborations and performances that it’s encouraged among other musicians.” And that’s the exact feeling you get when you attend a CR event. Good conversation, good drinks, good food, and good music—could you really ask for anything more? If you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has its own CR events, take the opportunity to check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

To read the full interview with Matt Heller, click here.

Nathan Schmidt

Taking Classical Music to the Streets: Classical Revolution at TEDxMidAtlantic

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