Artists Take Events Into Their Own Hands and Onto Different Stages

By Jason M. Rubin

Ask me my favorite jazz club and I’ll respond with the name of a joint that went out of business decades ago: the 1369 in Inman Square, Cambridge. There were other good, smoky little jazz clubs in Greater Boston back in the day, but now the area’s two major rooms are both upscale hotel-based clubs with high-priced tickets and drinks.

Rock shows are still plentiful but the big ones are in corporate-named venues with ticket costs you need to mortgage your house to afford. I don’t begrudge any artist making their money, but the result is that music audiences are becoming like theater audiences: restricted to older, wealthier patrons. I think most people would agree that live music should be a much more broadly democratized experience.

By the same token, classical music seems ever to be on the verge of going extinct due to its reliance on traditional forms of presentation – grand venues, fancy dress, large ensembles, and, yes, through-the-roof ticket prices. In this way, classical music practically ensures that many people will remain ignorant of it and uninterested in experiencing it for themselves.

Ultimately, both the artists and the audiences are the losers in these scenarios.  While audiences – especially the more working class among us – have long been frustrated over the premium costs associated with access to musical events, artists, too, are expressing their displeasure atthe status quo, and some are taking matters into their own hands.

Ilana Davidson is a New York-based soprano who has performed all over the world, yet changes in the industry and economy have made good jobs harder to find. In 2012, she began a concert series called Classical Café with friend and frequent musical collaborator, the cellist Jing Li. Through this series, approximately 20 chamber music performances by exceptional artists have been presented in Irish pubs, private homes, and other unconventional venues.

Adam Sherman is a Boston-based singer and guitarist who was on the cusp of stardom in 1980 as a member of Private Lightning. Their debut album on A&M Records was sabotaged by a lackluster mixing job. Constant gigging and teaching in the years since then left him in a funk, until this year when he decided to launch a nonprofit called Open Circle to provide artists and audiences with opportunities to engage in distinctive experiences without the parasitic influence of third parties.

Classical Café

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Ilana Davidson

“The musical climate has totally changed over the last few years,” says Davidson. “The economy and the Internet have changed the way music is presented and accessed, and the decisions that are being made are based on financial rather than artistic concerns.”

As examples, Davidson cites orchestras abandoning newer and more challenging works in favor of familiar warhorses that are sure to sell tickets. Certain high-profile artists seem to get all the major gigs, making it harder for younger musicians to make a living.

“There has been a rise in the intimate venue genre,” she says. “Someone I know told me he wanted to start a series of house concerts and was planning on hiring students. I told him that there are many experienced, world-class artists looking for work. Not that students shouldn’t have the opportunity, but there simply aren’t enough gigs to go around. That’s when we started to think of doing something ourselves.”

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Jing Li

Davidson and Li spoke to the management of the An Beal Bocht Café, a pub in the Bronx that hosts Irish sessions, and asked if they could present a chamber performance. The answer was yes, and the Bach at the Bocht series – and Classical Café – were launched. Other events have included a Handel “Messiah” sing-along.

“The versatility of chamber music seems to come alive when we gather in an Irish pub, a historic mansion, an armory, or a private home,” says Davidson. “We don’t have business or fundraising skills, but we’re doing it anyway because we need to perform; otherwise we have no soul. We’re trying to perpetuate the art of chamber music and give the kind of world-class performances that we’re trained to do. Chamber music was originally performed in homes anyway; our audiences tell us they enjoy being able to get so close to the musicians.”

Open Circle

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In Sherman’s case, the decision to start Open Circle was less about finding work than it was about finding meaning in his life and career. After years of being screwed by labels and club owners, he had a need for connection, community, and enlightenment.

“At the very base of it, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of fear,” says Sherman. “I’ve found that the desire for fame, which I had when I was younger, is just not good enough anymore. I’ve worked hard and paid my dues over and over again, the same as a lot of artists. I was looking for something more.”

The stated goal of Open Circle is to promote music, art, and creative events at alternative venues. Though a series of informal events over the past two years began to carry the Open Circle imprimatur, Sherman considers a recent event with jazz drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses to be the initiative’s official launch. For $25 each, about a dozen attendees spent an afternoon in Sherman’s Cambridge studio listening to Moses speak, play, and sing, and at the end he taught them a tune that everyone played together on assorted instruments Sherman had on hand.

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Adam Sherman

“Art is worth something,” he says. “It’s not fair for an artist to go to the museum school for four years and then be told that there is no market for young artists at this time. Musicians have a right to get on stage and play their music. But in most clubs, music is an afterthought, a way to sell more beer, and it shows. Lots of times artists don’t even get paid. For example, tons of places have open mike nights, where the club gets to have music without having to pay anyone for it.”

Sherman is currently planning the next event. He states that he would like it to have the same flavor as the Moses gig; in other words, not be a passive event where someone performs and other people just sit and listen.

“It’s really all in the name,” he says. “Open refers to the attitude participants bring to the events. They have to want to be engaged with their minds and their hearts, to learn something new about their art or themselves. And Circle is about building a community where people share these experiences together, support each other, and contribute something of themselves to benefit others.”

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