Rossini in Bushwick: Classical Music Gets Casual (and Sweaty) in Kitchens and Warehouses


Classical music struck me as a chore when I was a kid. It’s not that I didn’t like the way it sounded; I was just too restless to sit through the concerts my mother would drag me to, or even to make it through a piano lesson without breaking for cartwheels. As soon as I had any say in the matter, I learned three chords on the electric guitar, spent the greater part of the next decade in moshpits, and never looked back.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2015: I’m living in Brooklyn, and my roommate’s invited me to attend a performance by a string quartet at a friend’s house up the street. I’m skeptical, the way I’d be about a night out at Carnegie Hall — I would feel uncomfortable, trapped, bored, and a little stupid — but I go anyway.

The show was on the parlor floor of a shabby brownstone. After a quick introduction from the host, four young musicians, surrounded by cushions, couches, and red Solo cups, dived into Dvorák’s “American” String Quartet and Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 3. I sat cross-legged on a tattered sofa, stretched as I pleased, and drank about six different kinds of BYO rosé. Nobody seemed snobby about the music; no one seemed to care that I’d shown up in cutoffs and a T-shirt. It was chamber music at its most basic: music, in someone’s chambers.

Thanks to an organization called Groupmuse, shows like this one take place on any given evening, in any number of New York City neighborhoods. Traditionalists might balk at the lack of formality, but Groupmuses, as they’re known, are part of a new breed of performance transforming the way a younger crowd engages with classical music. The motivation behind it is simple: Scores of potential listeners don’t experience the beauty of live classical music because they are too intimidated, broke, or impatient to frequent established venues, where tickets can tax the wallet and your seatmate might be a coughing octogenarian.

It makes sense, then, that Sam Bodkin, 26, the CEO and co-founder of Groupmuse, doesn’t look much like a man who’s out to save classical music, either. With his Teva sandals, loose-fitting shirts, and curly hair, he looks like he could be big into Phish. It’s only when he starts describing his work that the picture starts to make more sense. “Couch-surfing, but for classical music” is how Bodkin pegs it.

“We need more opportunities to connect in the real world, in real time, in real space, to touch warm bodies,” he tells me, sitting with his legs hoisted into a loose lotus pose before a performance in Williamsburg, his eyebrows unruly accelerandos prodding him to talk faster and louder. “And classical music can save us.”

Groupmuse functions through an online platform that matches musicians with hosts, who pay nothing, and hosts with an audience, who pay $10 to the musicians. Its larger concerts, or “massivemuses” — anything from a Stravinsky-inspired “rave” to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique performed in a Bushwick warehouse — are more elaborate and cost around $20 in advance.

Bodkin himself is a classical music civilian, with no formal training — nor, by his account, much talent. He hadn’t even listened to it much until an unplanned encounter with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op. 133 in his early twenties at a neighbor’s house in 2008. After he heard the piece, “a switch was flipped in my brain. And within about six months of that first experience with Beethoven I knew that I was going to devote my life to classical music.”

If Bodkin — a suburban kid from Newton, Massachusetts, who majored in political science at Columbia and used to write “bad Beatles songs” — could have such a transcendent experience with Beethoven, couldn’t everyone? That was the assumption on which he founded Groupmuse with Ezra Weller, a New England Conservatory of Music grad, and Kyle Nichols-Schmolze, a Web developer. And it struck a chord: Groupmuse has organized more than a thousand concerts to date and raised $140,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure, I donated $25). That’s not a lot, but enough to keep running on a shoestring budget.

“People would come to us and say things like, ‘You know, I had no idea that I wanted something like this in my life,’ ” Bodkin says. “It shows that there’s this raw appetite for the intensity of these musical and artistic experiences.”

This way of thinking about classical music is catching on. A start-up opera company called LoftOpera is currently staging a riotous run of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory at the Muse, an industrial warehouse off the Wilson Avenue L, through June 11. Aesthetically and spiritually, the production has more in common with a low-budget pantomime than what you’d normally register as high art, but musically, they pulled off the lighthearted comedy without a hitch.

On opening night, aerialists in nun’s habits performed acrobatics while hanging from the ceiling while music director Sean Kelly conducted some thirty musicians under a wreath of sparkly Hula-Hoops, a tangle of electrical cables, and a crusty NO SMOKING sign. The male chorus, dressed in pink habits, supported a delightfully pervy Ory (Thorsteinn Árbjörnsson), who channeled the Holy Spirit of Terry Richardson in knockoff Ray-Bans and a pink mustache. As the count handed out bananas as blessings, the female chorus, dressed in shabby beige uniforms, peeled and sensuously devoured them.

And there were some decidedly modern twists: Comtesse Adele (Sharin Apostolou) and her sidekick, Ragonde (Shirin Eskandani), received good news via iPhone about a war their husbands were fighting, and promptly mimed selfies to celebrate. The opera ends with a risqué ménage à trois, with Ory (wearing nothing but hot-pink Calvins), his page, Isolier (Elizabeth Pojanowski), and Adele, whom they both lust after, thrusting their hips at one another in a four-poster bed without missing a note.

“This one was exciting to us because there’s a lot of queering going on,” says co-founder Daniel Ellis-Ferris, 27. “There was a lot of opportunity for color and craziness that fit with the farce and comedy.”

Ellis-Ferris started LoftOpera with his stepsister, Brianna Maury, and his classmate, principal conductor Dean Buck, both 26, after studying music at the New School (which sponsored the production of Comte Ory). “Coming out of college we saw an interesting movement of art and music, but no opera,” he tells me. The trio assembled a cast of mostly New School students to perform Don Giovanni in a Gowanus loft space. “This show is only something someone would do if they were very inexperienced,” Ellis-Ferris now notes, “but it went well and we never stopped.” LoftOpera plans to stage a short series of rooftop concerts over the summer and is preparing a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for September.

A big part of Ory‘s appeal is getting so up close and personal with the performers. It’s an offering that other, more traditionally established composers and directors, like the Metropolis Ensemble’s Andrew Cyr, are experimenting with too. Cyr, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2010, and a group of twenty musicians recently staged the second iteration of a show called Brownstone, a multi-room party-concert at the American Irish Historical Association. Violinists, xylophonists, and harpists performed, and vocalist Ariadne Greif sang a haunting solo while standing just inches from the audience. Combined with a light show, DJ, and food-and-cocktail pairings, it was a synesthetic experience, calibrated to toe the line between awesomeness and sensory overload.

The idea, in Cyr’s words, was for the audience to circulate freely and “take control of the experience.” The music and setting were perfectly suited to that: In each room, you heard a different version of the same song. That seems fundamental to this new crop of classical ensembles: It’s not about gimmicks, it’s about feeling allowed to break with convention and enjoy the music as you like.

Similarly, Groupmuses, whether intimate or wildly blown out, abide by just one programming rule: Performers must stick to classical pieces and not resort to, say, canned covers of “Stairway to Heaven” with strings. (“It’s really silly when you see the London Symphony Orchestra, like, playing a song written by Robert Plant basically about his dick,” Bodkin says.)

Still, “disrupting” classical music comes with its own set of criticisms and worries. “In Lucretia, we played Beyoncé during the intermission,” Maury remembers. “During one show, I got an email with the title: ‘TERRIBLE IDEA INTERMISSION MUSIC’…and it says, ‘I can’t believe this atrocious music. My friend is here and she had to cover her ears.’ And there was this old white lady covering her ears.”

There are more pedestrian concerns, too. “I have to worry if the L train is running or not,” Maury says. “Last summer there was a large cricket by the back door, so it was my job to move my feet to stop the cricket from making noises. As long as I was moving it would keep quiet. During Tosca, I had to sit by the breaker flipping it when we ran out of electricity and hope no one noticed. We’re getting used to garbage trucks. That’s Bushwick for you.”

She could just as easily have been describing the Groupmuse that followed my chat with Bodkin last month. The main attraction was a young group called the Ulysses Quartet, recent winners of the prestigious Fischoff competition, performing Bartók’s fourth quartet. The show was sold out: People sat on the floor, squeezed into corners, and piled up on a large mezzanine, their legs hanging off the ledge. It was wet and cold out, but within minutes listeners were peeling off their clothes. A volunteer tossed ragged foam squares — makeshift cushions — and cracked jokes about fire hazards. It was all pretty punk rock, for a classical music show.

As the quartet played, I noticed Bodkin sitting behind them on a spiral staircase. He played air violin and punched the air. His eyes were closed, his head thrown back. He appeared, from afar, to be having what they call an experience.