Armed with stringed instruments and intense training from the likes of Juilliard and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Classical Revolution is on a mission to change the way classical music is perceived and performed in this city. Conceived in late 2006, the collective's intent has been to inject a different sound into the Mission District music scene. What started as a quartet has now become a chamber music jam session with more than 100 performers sitting in over the years — from symphony and opera professionals to Google employees, a truck driver, and a water treatment lobbyist.
The group's music-for-all manifesto, played out three nights a week in unlikely bars, encourages the masses to have a beer with Brahms, dance to Dvorák, or make out to Mendelssohn. Classical music isn't just for the rich folks peering through their binoculars at Davies Symphony Hall — here it's bouncing off the ceilings at mainstays Revolution Cafe, the Make-Out Room, and Socha. These performances are akin to inviting passersby to share balcony seats with a corporate executive, minus the $100 ticket. "We're classically trained, but it's no different than rock 'n' roll," says Edwin Huizinga, a San Francisco Conservatory of Music–trained violinist. "We're getting our voice out there, just like bands playing in a garage."
Charith Premawardhana, a violist and Classical Revolution's founder, says he's working to change the stereotypes about classical music being played only in stuffy concert halls with high ticket prices. "We are about doing something for the community, especially those without a lot of money," he says. "It's also about talented younger musicians wanting to play in spaces other than formal orchestral settings."
The strategy seems to work. One night last month, 45 people crammed into Revolution Cafe's candlelit confines to hear an ensemble perform a Brahms sextet. Part word-of-mouth underground concert and part 18th-century salon, the evening's mix was indefinable. Seated at one table, inches from the musicians, a meditative older gentleman tapped his feet to the rhythm, while just behind him a rollicking group of twentysomethings swayed to the melody. At the bar, a woman scribbled in her journal as the bartender steadily served beers and sangria. No matter the venue, Classical Revolution seems to have accidentally stumbled onto the public's desire for an atmosphere of sexy meets refined. The only similarity between the concert hall and the no-frills bar is the thunderous applause and demand for encores.
Philip Browning, a 64-year-old Realtor, has attended almost every Classical Revolution performance for the past year. "It's so intimate sitting next to the musicians, seeing the strings plucked and the extra horsehair hanging off the bow," he says.
The players' accomplishments outside Classical Revolution are vast. On one end of the spectrum, they've competed at New England's internationally acclaimed Tanglewood Music Festival and held positions with the world-famous Arditti Quartet; on the other, they've played with popular acts ranging from Vanessa Carlton and Les Claypool's Frog Brigade to the Mars Volta. But while the professional musicians are a huge draw, there's also a dedicated cadre of Classical Revolution amateurs. Pianist and computer programmer Ariel Backenroth and violinists and Google employees Meghan Sherlock and Jennifer Chang perform with the group regularly. "Anyone can come and play in this chamber music club," Backenroth says. "It's a unique opportunity to play with high-caliber musicians."
Whether its members' résumés are high-powered or far-reaching, Classical Revolution's goal is to take a breather from stodgy traditions associated with its genre and get the public involved in the act. The group is re-establishing chamber music as an intimate art form to be enjoyed during late-night soirées — something like rock's unplugged playbook, only with music that was a hit a few centuries back.