Art Works Blog

In Cleveland, the Sudsier Side of Symphonies

Beer and Beethoven, hot dogs and Haydn. It’s an unusual menu, but one that’s been working well for the Happy Dog Saloon. Several times a year, the Cleveland bar hosts Ensemble HD, a classical music group made up of members of the Cleveland Orchestra. The first time the group performed at the bar, the place was packed with lines out the door. The events have proven so popular in fact that the Happy Dog has expanded its classical music offerings, featuring a rotating set of musicians from the organization Classical Revolutions Cleveland on the third Tuesday of every month.

While playing Bach in a bar has an irresistible “high art meets low-brow” appeal, it’s also a brilliant experiment in community engagement. In an age where symphony attendance is on the decline, orchestras are increasingly testing ways to entice new audiences, from outdoor projections on the New World Symphony building in Miami to performing for schoolchildren free-of-charge.

The Cleveland Orchestra is on the forefront of these outreach innovations. In addition to performances at the Happy Dog, Ensemble HD recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a double vinyl album of their live performances at the bar. In May, the Cleveland Orchestra will also begin a neighborhood residency in the Gordon Square Arts District, which will feature teacher workshops, music lessons, and free performances in non-traditional local venues.

We recently spoke about these groundbreaking projects via e-mail with Joshua Smith, principal flutist for the Cleveland Orchestra and leader of Ensemble HD. This morning, Smith presented at our National Council on the Arts meeting, along with Joan Katz Napoli, Cleveland Orchestra’s director of education and community programs. For more about the Orchestra’s community engagement efforts, check back soon to watch our archived webcast of the NCA meeting, which will feature the pair's presentation.

NEA: How did Ensemble HD come to play at the Happy Dog Saloon?

JOSHUA SMITH: I first met Sean Watterson, owner of the Happy Dog, at a friend-raiser for the Gordon Square Arts District, a burgeoning neighborhood on Cleveland's near west side where the bar is located. He told  me that he presents music there almost every night, and I just asked if he had ever tried classical. He hadn't, but he was game to try.

NEA: For your engagements at the Happy Dog, the place is usually packed with lines out the door. And yet, symphonies across the country are suffering from poor attendance. How do you explain the difference?

SMITH: I've been thinking about this a lot. For one thing, people seem to be more than ever interested in process, not just product, and in a situation like this, they're able to be practically inside of what is happening onstage- the spontaneity, directness, and fun of our musical communication with each other is really visible, and in this way, there doesn't have to be a whole lot of difference between classical chamber music and an Indie rock band- it's all about communication. Another thing- people are willing to try anything, maybe, when there's no risk to them. And in this case, they can come to a comfortable place, hang out with friends, eat and drink, AND pay attention to the music if they choose to, without a cover charge. We're not expecting to be front and center, and we're not expecting anyone to behave a certain way.

NEA: Do you think there’s something particularly appealing about a neighborhood bar as opposed to say a park or library or coffee shop?

SMITH: Well, the food and drink and potential ball game on TV are all part of the atmosphere. But I think any of those other choices would be fine and feasible too.

NEA: Ensemble HD is very adamant about playing classical chamber music as opposed to pop or jazz tunes. Why?

SMITH: We really want to stick to what we do best. Then we're honestly communicating exactly what we have to offer. Other people play jazz better than we do, so those are the people who would be entertaining to see and hear playing jazz.

NEA: What do you think symphonies can do to make people feel less intimidated by the concert hall?

SMITH:Well, I have nothing against the concept of a concert hall, either, for sure. Sitting quietly and experiencing the power of a great work of art is an amazing experience, of course. But I do think that arts organizations can begin to consider the evening as a total experience- from arrival in the parking lot to cocktails after, perhaps, a whole package is something that might be appealing to a chunk of patrons.

NEA: Can you tell me about the Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming residency at Gordon Square Arts District?

SMITH: The Cleveland Orchestra Neighborhood Residency is a new program that immerses the Orchestra in local communities with an intense schedule of performances and activities.  The first of the annual residencies in Northeast Ohio takes place the week of May 13-19, 2013, in Gordon Square. The centerpieces of the Residency are free Cleveland Orchestra concerts at St. Colman Church for neighborhood residents and students. Through the week, musicians will also perform as soloists and in ensembles in non-traditional locations and in local schools.

NEA: Who are some of your own musical influences or inspirations?

SMITH: Always, singers. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Cecila Bartoli, and Simon Keenlyside, as well as Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin. These are all people who I think communicate honestly and with great passion.

NEA: What’s your favorite hot dog topping at the Happy Dog?

SMITH: Right now, I'm pretty partial to bitter greens, bourbon baked beans, sriracha, and an egg.

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