classical meets working class: younger audiences being fed new diet of old art

There was nothing inherently special about the fifth of December, when Clevelanders young and old packed into the Happy Dog. But world-class musicians from the renowned Cleveland Orchestra were about to change that.

Bottles of beer clanged and over-stuffed hot dogs were consumed as Ensemble HD hit the stage for night two of their concert series offering classical music in an intimate venue typically reserved for polka, solo acts and indie rock bands.

Every seat was filled by 7 p.m. -- an hour before the scheduled start time. Late arrivals made use of what little standing room remained by the time Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson took the stage to thank both the attendees and musicians. From the moment the first notes flowed from Amy Lee's violin to the bitter-sweet end, the audience remained utterly enthralled by the show.

This seemingly incongruous yet enchanting match between classical music and a neighborhood barroom is just one example of how Cleveland arts institutions are working to engage new audiences to keep classical music, ballet, literature and fine art alive, well and thriving.

Classical Meets Working Class

Flutist Josh Smith says that his idea to play classical music at a bar was designed “to connect to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to a concert hall.”

Launched in 2010, Smith’s barroom chamber music group Ensemble HD headlines the Happy Dog two to three times a year. The experience is wholly unlike those at Severance Hall, where attendees are physically separated from the performers and come solely to hear music.

Smith knew the idea would be a success after struggling to find a parking spot 45 minutes before the first Happy Dog show. “We were playing to people who were literally waving lighters above their head and screaming ‘Beethoven,’” he recalls.

The initial collaboration has since evolved into a Cleveland chapter of Classical Revolution, a concept launched in San Francisco to promote high-quality chamber music in non-traditional settings. Cleveland, notes Watterson, has one of the most robust chapters. Now, on the third Tuesday of every month, the Happy Dog hosts musicians from the Cleveland Institute of Music, including members of the Cleveland Orchestra, to play free of charge.

Watterson hopes more musicians will hit the club scene. “I would love to see everybody in the orchestra under 40 get out, playing in clubs, and connecting with people their own age,” he says. “I know when people see them in person, they’re able to connect with them, and it’ll be good for Cleveland, good for the orchestra, good all the way around.”

Bringing Ballet to a Whole New Crew

Jessica Wallis, founder of Ballet in Cleveland, says a performance of Swan Lake at PlayhouseSquare when she was 10 years old ignited her life-long love of ballet.

“Everything about the whole experience was just phenomenal,” she recalls. “That experience always stuck with me.”

Sadly, Wallis’ ambition for a career in dance came to an abrupt halt in high school when an injury snuffed out her dreams. “It was devastating, but I never really lamented it or mourned.”

But Wallis’ passion for dance remained strong, even as classical dance in Cleveland withered. Hard work led to the creation of Ballet in Cleveland, whose mission is to cultivate a new generation of ballet fans in the city. To do that, Wallis devises ways to engage young audiences, who typically scoff at ballet. She recently organized a hip-hop dance number that was performed at the Rock Hall.

“Even though that wasn’t a ballet number," Wallis explains, "we’ve been able to take that and open up doors and perform and make connections with organizations we never would’ve before.”

Next up: Ballet in Cleveland will be welcoming Allison DeBona of Ballet West to the Gund Dance Studio for two master ballet classes. The presence of such talent, hopes Wallis, will entice those unfamiliar with ballet to perhaps dip in their toes. She is also working on a collaboration between dancers from the New York City Ballet and musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra.

“Ballet is changing,” she says. “It’s not just stuffy venues and tuxedos.”

The Ohio City Salon

In 2009, Loung Ung held a book signing at the Bier Markt for her book First They Killed My Father, a horrific account of growing up in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Bar owner Sam McNulty recalls Ung, who is also a partner in his business, saying, “We’ve got to do this on a regular basis. There are so many great authors in Northeast Ohio, and we should celebrate them in a more casual environment than bookstores or libraries.”

Now called the Market Garden Brewery Reading Series, the monthly events invite two authors working in different genres to the Ohio City brewery to read and sell their work. The well-attended literary events are fast becoming this generation's version of the salon.

“The idea is to take something and reach a wider audience by bringing these great authors and presenting it in a casual environment,” McNulty explains. “It opens it up to a wider and younger audience." And, he adds, "The authors appreciate how casual the environment is.”

At the same time, audience members are gaining a new appreciation for the written word. “We’re so used to reading abbreviate text messages that an actual work of literature holds a lot more value now because it’s become an exception to what we’re used to," says McNulty.

Experiencing Art in a New Light

Now entering its fourth month, MIX at CMA is quickly earning a spot on the roster of must-hit social events for young professionals. The monthly happy hours attract large crowds, who flock to the Cleveland Museum of Art to enjoy friendship, music, adult beverages and the city's finest art collection.

"Mix is our monthly program series that really helps us reach out to a younger audience that's looking for hip experiences, unique experiences, which the museum can offer," explains Elizabeth Bolander, CMA's Director of Communications. "This gives them a new way to connect with our collection and exhibitions."

Each month, the museum highlights some aspect of its permanent collection, current exhibitions, or physical part of the building. Guests at last month's MIX, themed "Illumination," enjoyed lantern-led tours of the museum, during which docents discussed the use of light in various works throughout the collection.

"This is an accessible and unintimidating way to experience different aspects of the museum," notes Becky Astrop, CMA's Communications Manager.

Photo Credits
Bob Perkoski - Orchestral Maneuvers and Jessica Wallace
Ballet in Cleveland photos courtesy of Ballet in Cleveland
Carissa Russell - Market Garden Brewery Reading Series

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.