Strings Theory

Cellist Rajan Krishnaswami hypothesizes that more people would listen to chamber music if it weren't so stodgy.

The Q Cafe in a converted Interbay industrial space boasts the usual coffeehouse accoutrements: big puffy secondhand couches, a bulletin board full of flyers for lefty causes, a couple dozen colorful bottles of flavored syrups on the shelf that look a bit like a rank of psychedelic organ pipes. Not everyone would look at the place and think "chamber music"—but cellist Rajan Krishnaswami did. For his Simple Measures recital series, about to launch its second season, he's been scouting unconventional venues just like this; it's all part of his plan to dispel some of the stuffiness, real or perceived, that keeps people away from chamber music concerts. "I'd been thinking over several years why classical music wasn't reaching the general public," he says. "The concert format of today is very 19th century—not even 20th century. Penguin suits and everything . . . we're looking for a 21st-century paradigm." For Simple Measures, this means three innovations especially designed to appeal to classical newbies and take the intimidation factor out of the concertgoing experience. First, intimacy. The concerts aren't held in traditional theaters, thus no stage and no proscenium; the audience is clustered (on movable folding chairs) around the players, near enough to hear them breathe and watch the interactions that are so vital a part of chamber-music playing. Second, there's talk: Krishnaswami, personable and direct, breaks the fourth wall and chats with the listeners before each piece, describing it, taking questions, asking for feedback. Third, the program for each concert is based on a theme, offering the audience a way into the music, something to listen for. "Colors of the Wind," for example, drew about 50 people to Q Cafe last February for an exploration of the role of wind instruments in chamber music, a genre dominated by strings and the piano, but to which winds can add an idiosyncratic flavor. On the first half, Krishnaswami and about a dozen colleagues played movements from five or six works; after intermission, they offered a complete work. The comfortable atmosphere and informality increased the listeners' attention level and engagement with the music, and Krishnaswami's gift for communication (his primary source of income is teaching) was apparent. "It's not at all stuffy . . . you feel like you're really learning something," says audience (and board) member Matthew Felton, an amateur musician working in the computer field. "Friends I've invited have loved it." Krishnaswami reports that attendance is increasing with each Simple Measures program, as is the range of experience within each audience, which include both the chamber music novices he's aiming to attract as well as Seattle Chamber Music Society subscribers and other professional musicians. Kids, too, especially those studying classical instruments themselves, are showing up and contributing to the discussions, which a lowered ticket price ($10 for ages 5–15) is intended to encourage. Each concert is performed four times in different places; locations for Simple Measures' 2006–07 season include various churches and community centers from Edmonds to Tacoma, as well as Ballard's Golden Gardens Bath House and a spot in Fremont to be announced. (Their next Q Cafe performance is scheduled for Nov. 6.) In booking venues, Krishnaswami says he looks for either good acoustics or a "high 'cool' factor." It's an approach that's also inspired Seattle violinist Karen Iglitzin, who organizes students from her "Chamber Music Madness" program to perform low-pressure, high-quality recitals in private homes; cellist Matt Haimovitz, who's been touring bars and coffeehouses nationwide with music from Bach to Led Zeppelin, including two sold-out appearances at the Tractor Tavern; and New York City's Mostly Mozart Festival, which this summer offered laid-back 10:30 p.m. concerts, with wine, in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. In a way, though, all these experiments are simply a common-sense return to chamber music's roots: This music is intended to be intimate and convivial, to be heard up close rather than in 2,500-seat halls—and, until Beethoven's time at least, it was designed for amateurs, a domestic, do-it-yourself genre rather than a spectator sport like opera or orchestral music. What presenters like Krishnaswami are doing is giving this repertory a new context—and, he hopes, new fans—by replacing the salons of the nobility with gathering places accessible to all.

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