Classical music used to be heard in salons and palace ballrooms, so it’s not an entirely new concept to present classical music, like other genres long since have, in intimate spaces where audiences can enjoy a closer connection with their favorite performers in a relaxed setting. One of the first of these venues in the New York downtown scene to include classical music was Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, which opened in 2008. Here, New York classical fans had their first chance to feel as cool as their Pop and Jazz cohorts, and enjoy a slider and a drink while listening to some bold star pianists like Simone Dinnerstein, Hélène Grimaud, and Natasha Paremski. To add excitement, these pianists often paired up with a young, attractive cellist or violinist. I especially remember programs with these matches, such as cellist Zuill Bailey paired with Simone Dinnerstein, violinist Misha Quint and Natasha Paremski, and the husband-wife piano duo Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung. These performances were not taken lightly by the press. Pianist Jeremy Denk’s program at the Highland Ballroom in 2009 attracted the New York Times’ attention, as have most of the performers on LPR’s somewhat leisurely curated programs, which include classical mixed with jazz, tango, and contemporary. The night after his Avery Fisher Hall performances with the New York Philharmonic, pianist Kirill Gerstein told his LPR fans how much he enjoyed mixing it up a bit. As an ideal place for a combination performance/CD release after-party, Le Poisson Rouge has attracted such recording artists as mandolinist Avi Avital, who celebrated his Grammy nomination of a Naxos recording with the Metropolis Ensemble and famed violinist Gil Shaham, who connected a short, droll video clip of himself and pianist Yefim Bronfman playing a high-caliber performance, to his evening’s presentation. Classical repertoire also made a timely entrance into Joe’s Pub, which has lately featured some European artists, including pianist Lily Maisky, who performed with Misha Quint and signed their just-released CD afterwards for fans. The performers seem to enjoy playing in the less-formal venue, glad to have the opportunity to perform for some of their peers, who may not venture out to the concert hall frequently, or at all. What draws new audiences to these settings? Of course, the immediate proximity that patrons have to the performers, and the comfortable setting in which they can sit and listen to the music appeals to a more casual lifestyle. Also, table service during performances is a welcome change from seeing their favorite artists from afar on the big hall stages. Another attraction for all is that it’s not unusual to find other star artists in the audience, which creates a feeling of an artistic community setting that everybody enjoys being part of. The other night at Joe’s Pub, for example, illustrious cellist Misha Maisky was in attendance to support his daughter on stage, and prominent violinist Joshua Bell also came to the show along with a group of friends.
With the opening of the new venue SubCulture this September, however, new rules have come into play to accommodate its owners’ vision. In an interview at the venue’s backstage office, Marc and Steven Kaplan, owners of the new spot on Bleecker Street, which is just a couple of blocks down the road from LPR, shared their ideas: “We had gone to LPR and other venues and truly enjoyed hanging out there very much. We also love all kinds of jazz clubs and eating, drinking, and listening. However for SubCulture, our goal was not necessarily to become part of New York’s nightlife. We rather wanted something more theatrical, which concentrated on the performance alone, even though we do have a bar.” That’s why instead of the cocktail tables of LPR, Joe’s Pub, or others, one finds rows of old theatre seats at SubCulture, making it clear that the audience is the audience while the music plays on stage.
With SubCulture, the uptown classical programmers and institutions saw an opportunity to finally get a piece of the trendy, downtown action. “Last April, after the 92nd Street Y’s downtown Tribeca location closed its doors, the Y came scouting for a new location,” says Marc Kaplan.
Photo: SubCulture’s channeled hallway leading to the performance space below @getclassical
“The 92nd Street Y had made plans to coordinate some classical music events with the New York Philharmonic’s contemporary CONTACT! series and other artists…,” like the famed pianist Yefim Bronfman, this season’s New York Philharmonic pianist-in-residence, as well as other authorities of the music world. “They had no idea that we were here, but came to the theatre upstairs. We were still knee-deep in the construction process, but they must have seen the huge potential interest that the venue could hold, affirming our own instincts about the possibilities.” November 4th, SubCulture will host its first collaborative event with the New York Philharmonic and 92Y, in an evening presenting CONTACT! artists with the eminent conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. On January 13th, CONTACT!’s young artists will partake in a trio with pianist Yefim Bronfman. Besides the exciting program and performers, both events should be memorable and chock full of press, as uptown music venues attempt to take their hold in downtown’s alternative music industry.
This is a big opportunity for the two Kaplan brothers, who grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and arrived on the scene with lots of supporters from their hometown and a set of skills that they feel make them the perfect partners for this uptown-downtown mutual undertaking. The joint partnership and its promising beginning has given the brothers’ own relationship a new energy, which has enabled them to achieve what they feel is an “authentic venue with an atmosphere that offers the best possible climate, concentrated on performances for a small but not tiny audience, while still retaining that ‘cool’ feeling of a unique downtown space – a diamond in the rough.” This is not the brothers’ first project working together. “We wrote some music, we talked about real estate…. but SubCulture is the perfect merger of both our worlds and all our dreams.” Steven has a business background. Marc is in charge of production. Music has always been a connective tissue in their relationship, as music and the arts played a big role in their lives growing up. Steve picked up the trumpet at West Hartford High School, which offered a great jazz program with many guest artists, who performed and inspired the young students. When Steven and Marc attended college in Washington, D.C, Steven went down the road of finance, but picked up piano improvisation later on. He enjoys playing tremendously: “Playing music makes me happy,” he says.
Marc remembers many car rides during which he and his brother would listen to each other’s favorite tunes, comparing their latest tracks. He himself always stayed in music, everything from instrumental and voice, as well as conducting. From early on, he conducted youth orchestras, always finding a way to cast his brother in them, and continued in music education afterwards. Music continues to be a “feel-good ground of sharing our interests with each other.” SubCulture feels like the natural course for their professional relationship and their relationship to music, which welcomes variety. When the brothers started looking for the “perfect” venue that would become SubCulture two and a half years ago, it took them about a year to find the location. “We brought a certain naiveté to it. When describing our ‘ideal’ place to each other, our vision took shape to include intimacy, artistic design, great lighting and sound, not too large, an open feeling…to enjoy performances on stage in a personal way, “ they say, reminiscent of a fun process. “When we saw this raw space, it fit the bill. The only thing, which was totally opposite to our vision, were the columns. We did not really want them since we thought they would block the view but we did end up having lots of columns which kind of now define the space at SubCulture.” Steven and Marc have many ideas, but have not yet completely decided on the direction of their curating, with regard to programs or even general set usage. “We can see the venue work successfully for many productions; the space is geared towards all kinds of music performances with its great acoustics, but comedy shows or even business meetings and fashion events can work well there, too.”
In the meantime, they are aiming to create the best performance space of their league, building up trust with their new audiences and customers. And for whatever event they are hosting, they stay involved in every production they book, making sure it works with the atmosphere of the space, satisfies their new audiences, and reflects a certain sophisticated fingerprint of style. Is downtown becoming the new uptown for New York’s avid classical music lovers?