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Millennials for Mozart

A startup is trying to revive live classical music for younger audiences


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Millennials for Mozart
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NEW YORK—An unusual, sold-out classical performance took place one recent April night in the stone crypt of Harlem’s Church of the Intercession. The audience of about 150 filtered in, lugging appetizers and drinks, and found precious chairs or floor space. The ensemble of string musicians about to perform loitered, laughing together and sipping wine. A composer premiering a piece that night wore a hoodie.

“If you didn’t buy a ticket, come see me after,” said one of the organizers.This is the decidedly casual and inviting atmosphere of Groupmuse performances—which typically take place in someone’s living room, and occasionally crypts. Groupmuse, a startup that organizes classical house concerts, began three years ago in Boston as the idea of Columbia University grad and classical music nut Sam Bodkin.

Groupmuse members can volunteer to host a concert at their homes, and Groupmuse finds the high-caliber musicians to perform, then posts upcoming concerts on its website. As a layer of security, Groupmuse requires concertgoers to become members via their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. Hosts have to approve each concertgoer. Groupmuse imposes no charge but asks concertgoers to donate at least $10 directly to the musicians. In New York, the concerts sell out quickly.

The company now has about 40,000 members and has hosted about 1,500 concerts in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. It’s currently expanding to smaller cities that have a stable of classical musicians, like Rochester, N.Y., and Cleveland. Midlevel cities are Bodkin’s dream destination: After all, he points out, New York doesn’t necessarily need “more art.”

Most Groupmuse concertgoers are in their 20s or 30s, precisely the audiences that elite orchestras are failing to reach. Symphony audiences are famously aging and decreasing in number. Corporate donations to orchestras are down, and even major symphonies have gone through bankruptcy. Attendance is declining at live artistic performances in general, like theater and classical concerts, according to a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report. Many attendees at Groupmuse concerts aren’t classical music aficionados: They come because the concerts seem fun.

“Familiarity with classical music in our generation is so low,” said Bodkin, who is 26. “All you need is one or two of these evenings to understand that Beethoven is no joke.”

Bodkin thinks his company isn’t a replacement for symphony concerts, but is creating a new audience for orchestras. Perhaps, he hopes, current Groupmuse members will someday be the ones donating to the New York Philharmonic because they’ve grown to appreciate live classical music.

The company has also partnered with orchestras and other arts organizations in its host cities, developing niche events with discounted tickets for its members. In New York, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center recently invited Groupmuse members to a concert featuring the score from Psycho, as well as pieces from Maurice Ravel and Franz Schubert, with food and drink afterward.

Last fall Groupmuse won a small seed round of investment, and then raised $140,000 on Kickstarter. Bodkin is hopeful that by the end of this year, the company and its 3½ employees will be financially sustainable. For now, “we’re happy to be broke,” he said. The company is slowly rolling out a $3 reservation fee, which will help the bottom line and will address the problem of no-shows at the free concerts.

At another Groupmuse gathering in a cozier Harlem living room, a quintet performed Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor. The piece is especially powerful when string musicians are performing a few feet away. You can watch the musicians follow each other with their eyes, and breathe together. They stayed to talk about Mozart afterward. People exchanged email addresses.

“House concerts have been going on as long as classical music has been played,” said violist Luke Fleming. But such concerts more often entertained friends or donors. Groupmuse, Fleming said, has tapped into something making classical concerts “less intimidating” to attend.

Some of the musicians are Juilliard students looking for a gig, while others are elite professionals. Fleming, who performed at the Church of the Intercession with the string ensemble, leads his own chamber group, Manhattan Chamber Players. He has a Ph.D. from Juilliard and was a member of the highly regarded Attacca Quartet—so he’s not a starving artist. But he’s willing to play wherever audiences are, even if they’re in a boomy church basement. This summer his chamber group is performing at a brewery in New Orleans.

“Modern audiences are willing to sacrifice what musicians think of as acoustic superiority in favor of proximity,” said Fleming. He enjoys these kinds of performances, where he feels he connects with the audience.

At the concert in the church crypt, the musicians from the ensemble, Shattered Glass, threw down extra rugs to help with the acoustics. The ensemble, suddenly formal and poised, took their places and performed the premiere of Transition Behavior by Pascal Le Boeuf and then another contemporary piece, Chaâbi by Tarik O’Regan. Le Boeuf and O’Regan both introduced their own pieces. The ensemble closed with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. People clapped between movements—verboten in a concert hall—and some snapped photos. But for this evening, phones were mostly out of sight. A shouting ovation filled the crypt at the end of the performance.

Bodkin says he is not a Christian, having grown up in a secular Jewish household, but he thinks of Groupmuse gatherings as something akin to church. He said people have “spiritual needs,” and these works of music, shared with real people in real time, help “block out the white noise of modernity.”


Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.

@emlybelz

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