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Viva la Revolution

December 16, 2008

"Music didn't always use to be so [bleepin'] pretentious," whispered one of the "concert" goers as he stood on the sidewalk, rolling a cigarette while listening to the Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet. As the performers started to play the Alla Zingara "Gypsy" movement, listeners whistled, whooped, and yelled "Yeah! All right!" The smiling performers, visibly energized, ratcheted up the tempo.
Most of us are used to (and stuck with) a classical concert format established by megalomaniacs such as Liszt and Wagner. But in the small Revolution Cafe at the corner of 22nd Street and Bartlett in the heart of San Francisco's hipster/Hispanic Mission District, a group of musicians is out to change that. The mood of the performance is different, and consequently the entire musical experience is different, both to the audience and to the performers. The musicians feed on the enthusiasm and interest of the listeners, while the listeners are exposed to music they would not otherwise have encountered — and they come to love it.

A performance at Revolution Cafe

Local hip-hop DJ Chris Vaeth had never in his life attended a classical concert before, but since discovering the Revolution Cafe's classical Sundays, he comes back often, especially to listen to the live music while sipping a cocktail and writing in his journal. He calls the evenings "inspiring." Marcus Davis, another Mission resident who works at both the YMCA and a local pizza parlor, had also never heard classical music live before. Seated just a few feet away from the ensemble, after the performance he raves, "It's insane, it's so intense, I'm hooked!"

Performers and casual listeners alike are at various levels of inebriation, from the completely sober to the totally stoned. On a rainy Sunday night in December, most of the bars and clubs on 22nd Street are deserted. But the Cafe is packed to the brim with cello cases and people competing for every last inch of space. Even on one of the chilliest nights of the year (a bitter-cold 40-something degrees), the windows and door are kept open to accommodate smokers outside and those who can't squeeze in. The crowdedness and close proximity to the music keeps everybody warm.

The evening starts with the aforementioned Brahms. This is followed by the Mozart C-major Viola Quintet, in which I join in. How often does a reviewer get to participate in the action? I have loads of fun. Unfortunately, we have to skip the slow movement, as the place is slightly too loud for that. Sure, we're sight-reading, and mistakes aplenty are made. But sometimes the music-making is freshest, most spontaneous, most joyous, before the picky burdens of a rehearsal, and without the pretension and stress of a formal concert. I don't feel bothered one bit by the clinking of glasses or the hushed conversation around us. In fact it puts me at ease. Plus, playing earns me a free beer at the bar.
A Blast, From the Distant Past
Classical Revolution harks back to the days of Bach's Collegium Musicum, performed at Zimmerman's Coffee Shop in Leipzig, and to Mozart and Beethoven playing to rowdy, loud audiences in Vienna; Chopin playing in Parisian salons; and Brahms playing in Hamburg working-class social halls. The format offers a unique experience that all music lovers should check out. It by no means stands in lieu of a traditional concert, but rather is a viable alternative to it, making this type of music relevant once again.

Charith Premawardhana

Violist Charith Premawardhana founded the movement several years ago, after graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He seems to know all the musicians and listeners by name. Among other things, the musical evenings have been great networking occasions for gigs, professional connections, even romantic hookups. "Rev' is a great place to relax, chill, and play some music free-style," says pianist, computer programmer, and revolution co-organizer Ariel Backenroth.

The Sunday gatherings at Revolution Cafe are pretty much maxed out: Musicians vie for a chance to play, while seats and standing room for the audience are a hot commodity. The movement is expanding to other locations on other nights, and to other cities, as well. There are now Classical Revolutions taking place in New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Reno, and other cities. The New York Times recently featured an article on the phenomenon, as did SF Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle.

Musicians performing at the Cafe vary, from highly competent amateurs to professional orchestra players. Other Conservatory people or non-music-professional musicians make up a crew of regulars who show up and play every week, but also bring music stands and lights and help spread the word. Members of the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Orchestra come to make music every once in a while.
Truly Alive Listening
"We always play in serious, high-pressure conditions, so it's nice to play while people are hanging out and chatting," says Adam Luftman, principal trumpet of the Opera Orchestra. On Sunday, he joined out-of-towners Frank Rosenwein (principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra) and Ariana Ghez (same position at the Los Angeles Philharmonic) in Beethoven's Op. 87 Trio. The odd trumpet-and-two-oboes ensemble blended remarkably well. Where else could you hear such an ensemble?

Adam Luftman

And while they were playing, young women in their 20s listened with beautiful, huge grins on their faces. They could be heard giggling innocently to Beethoven's Haydnesque humor, saying, "Oh my God, that is so cute!" An annoying response? Or one that's preferable to listeners who sit stoically with no reaction at all?

The evening was billed as "Classical Revolution Presents Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time," but this didn't happen until 10 o'clock. The change of tone was immediately felt and the chatty audience was hushed. Violinist Leonie Bot, cellist Erin Wang, clarinetist Sophie Huet, and piano Ian Scarfe, all students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed Messiaen's sublime work with well-honed artistry and thoughtful expressiveness. Listening to the piece played on the Cafe's out-of-tune piano, interrupted by the sounds of what was unmistakably a gunshot, followed by sirens (it's the Mission, after all) and urban street noises, I thought that the context seemed strangely appropriate for a piece that was conceived in a prisoner-of-war camp. More appropriate, at least, than a fancy concert hall.

Pianist Ian Scarfe remarked after the performance that he was impressed by how quiet the audience became. The setup of the place leaves the pianist with his back to the audience; judging by the silence, he was sure that the players' Messiaen had emptied the bar of revelers looking to relax and just have a good time. But after the work's last heavenly chords faded out, the place erupted with passionate cheers.

The status quo structure in classical music is: The composer writes a piece, performers play it, an audience pays to sit quietly and hear it live. There are advantages to this setup. Silence and intense concentration are required to fully appreciate this music's finite complexity. But it can also be appreciated in other ways. There are no music police who say, "This is the way that it is, and must be!" Or are there? As a matter of fact, that's almost what happened. San Francisco's Entertainment Commission temporarily shut down Classical Revolution, citing the venue's lack of a license for live music. But the musicians fought back and attended hearings at City Hall ... and they got their revolution back.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.