Astral takes classical out of the concert hall

Astral takes classical out of the concert hall | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/08/2010.

Modeling its effort on Le Poisson Rouge, the New York art cabaret whose mission is to "revive the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry," Astral has been casting about for venues in Philadelphia that could augment its regular concerts in churches and at the Kimmel Center.

Wednesday's classical cabaret represents the kind of powerful, intimate point of contact many music groups sense is the future. Classical wants to be with the cool kids, in clubs. But how viable is it to conquer audiences a few dozen listeners at a time?

"It's putting blue jeans on a crowd that maybe usually wears tuxedos," said John Foy, the restaurant's founder.

Actually, that wouldn't be classical listeners. But the image - tuxes, jewels - persists and represents a huge obstacle between classical music and its potential audience. If there's a juggernaut in the field, this is it.

With times tough, the forums and formats for sharing art have never been more actively reconsidered than now. Producers and presenters are going where the consumers are, putting art in surprising places. The Philadelphia Orchestra's neighborhood concerts have been a hit, and that very downtown ensemble is looking at the questions of portable stages and concerts in the suburbs. Zoe Strauss' annual photography exhibition under I-95, which took its last-ever lap last weekend, was all about changing perceptions of art, where it belongs and who it's for.

There's great irony in the fact that just as Philadelphia was getting its great big shopping mall of an arts center - the Kimmel - listeners were starting to yearn for more intimate experiences and non-art venues. The Kimmel's high rental rates certainly haven't helped. Groups like Astral can afford to perform there only occasionally.

But the overhead of Big Music aside, there's another shift going on here. The idea of big institutions as trusted mediators between the public and art suddenly rings false for many people. Tastes are becoming increasingly specialized and self-directed. If consumers can choose between 10 different kinds of orange juice, why not art?

Where will it lead? Can it be that as audiences increasingly stratify according to tastes, experience, attention spans, and general expectations, the days of large-venue events are numbered?

Are there enough Lilliputian experiences out there to tie up (and starve) the giants?

It's doubtful. Among other things, a shared experience in a big venue creates a frisson not possible elsewhere. There's also a cost factor that makes it impossible to experience certain concerts or events unless several thousand ticket buyers are contributing to the cost - though just because the Philadelphia Orchestra plays 100 concerts a year doesn't necessarily mean people will show up, as this season demonstrated.

Astral doesn't look at Wednesday night's cabaret as a replacement for what it does, which is providing career guidance and concerts to emerging artists. But the group is exceptionally well equipped to adapt its mission and explore this question of where people want to experience art.

If anything, groups like Astral are leading the trend of becoming all things to all people. They're in schools and retirement homes, concert halls and bars on South Street.

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