Interview: Classical Revolution Calgary founder Matt Heller

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

Interview by Nathan Schmidt.

NS: How did you first hear about Classical Revolution and what made you want to start it in Calgary?

MH: I met Charith when we both lived in Chicago, playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He was really a fun, cool guy, and I knew he loved putting together chamber music readings. It was a few years later, when he was in San Francisco, that he got this going as a weekly event in a café. There's nothing really all that new about the idea, but he managed to give it a fresh spin, and get an amazing amount of buzz—I was living in Miami Beach and playing in the New World Symphony when this was happening, and it was definitely talked about a lot there. I moved to Calgary in 2007, and pretty much as soon as I got here I was talking with other musicians about doing chamber music for house concerts and pop-up events. We got a grant to start up an organization in 2012, and it made sense to model it after what Charith was doing in San Francisco, which by that point had been taken up in dozens of cities. 
NS: As a classical musician and orchestral player yourself, how do you view the setting, atmosphere, and procedure of a Classical Revolution event?
MH: When we started doing this at Café Koi, we knew we wanted create a casual setting to play chamber music, but we weren't sure what it would look like, exactly. How much should we program and promote it? What sorts of groups should we spotlight? How much should it be hosted, and how much empty time should we allow? I think we've found a balance that generally works at Koi, but it can also change on any given week, depending on the musicians and audience who are there. One of the things I've realized is that the formulas and conventions of classical music—the entrances, the bowing, intermissions and imposed encores—are there for a reason, they are not just contrived fakery. It gives everyone a certain comfort level, of knowing what's going on and how the night is going to work. You can change and reinvent that stuff, but you still need to address the basic need for a logical and smoothly run event. 

NS: How does it differ from a typical concert of classical music?

MH: We'll often have 4 or 5 different sets of players—could be a solo instrumentalist, a singer with piano, a quartet, or something wacky. They'll each do 20–30 minutes of music, and we'll take short breaks between. So in a way it's like a series of mini-concerts, which you can drop in and out throughout the evening. There is usually a huge variety of music and musicians involved, though we try to tie things together a bit with a theme. Part of the fun is in the juxtapositions and collisions of diverse styles and performances—hopefully no literal collisions though.
NS: With so many stories about the death of classical music etc., how do you view something like CR and how do you think it fits in to the current story of classical music?
MH: I think all sorts of art forms, not just classical music, are looking for ways to be more engaging and participatory. There are all these trends embracing DIY, local-ism, breaking down the fourth wall—CR is relevant to all of those. I used to talk about trying to keep classical music from becoming a sort of museum exhibit, with our costumes and absurd traditions, but museums are also innovating and becoming way more participatory. Really, I don't think it makes sense to talk about classical music's death. It's just morphing along with society. Organizing CR has made me realize how vital this music is, and how it has entire dimensions I hadn't even really considered. 
NS: What do you personally enjoy and find fulfilling about running and participating in a classical music event such as this?

MH: Part of it is just the closeness of the audience, the lack of all that 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 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 watch them try new things. 
NS: Talk a little about what you do in your musical career and the usual gigs you perform in.
MH: I'm a double bass player in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, which is a full-time gig with several different concerts each week. I also do some teaching and clinics, and play with smaller ensembles whenever possible. I've played with the Mountain View Chamber Music series, the Instrumental Society of Calgary, Land's End Chamber Ensemble, and Kensington Sinfonia. I studied music performance at New England Conservatory in Boston, Northwestern University in Evanston, and did a 3 year fellowship at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach before coming to Calgary to join the CPO.

To find out more about Classical Revolution Calgary, check out their Facebook page here.

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