REVIEW: Ensemble HD- Live at the Happy Dog

The dogs might have been howling on the West Side, but they weren’t happy.

The SOBs (Symphony, Operas and Ballets) were on their knees and Joshua Smith, the upstart principal flutist from The Cleveland Orchestra tried bringing his orchestra buddies to play a gig at the Happy Dog, at the edge of the nascent Gordon Square Arts District. On the West Side of town.

A real bar band gig, like countless bands in nameless bars around the world, but this one wanted to play classical music for a crowd busy with beer and gourmet hot dogs. Social media had kicked in and lines formed around the block. But it wasn’t working. The Mozart & Schubert sounded like “elevator music,” according to Smith, and worse, it felt like another lame attempt to “broaden the audience” for classical music.

But Smith and Happy Dog co-owner Sean Watterson didn’t give up. Since those initial attempts in 2010, they refined their approach, and started programming more serious repertoire. The more serious they got, the more the bar patrons got distracted, and listened. So Weburn, Part, Halvorsen, Bolcom got in on the act, and the act got better. They became known as Ensemble HD. Crowds became standing room. Quite an unusual situation for classical music. But not unprecedented.

Eons ago, in places far away, this kind of music was a part of the conversation, but times have changed. We witnessed an opera in Italy a few years back where the audience got into a shouting match across the aisles. In the middle of the performance. About the music. They love their opera. But that’s Italy.

Meanwhile, a little further West of Gordon Square at Lakewood High School, orchestra director Beth Hankins takes her students to the Rock Hall and has the bright idea to blend the two, classical and rock, just to see if it generates any interest. The Lakewood Project was born with a full string orchestra, a full rock band rhythm section, and a double quartet of electric viper violins. Ten years on, they’re doing better than standing room- they have a mosh pit of junior high kids at every concert, lining up -and rehearsing- to try out for the Lakewood Project. Is classical music relevant? It is to these kids.

So, anomalous as it is, we have Josh & Sean and their persistence to thank for this pocket of classical music appreciation in Cleveland. To their credit, they keep the quality high and the music challenging, and almost monthly, the small club is regularly programming a Cleveland version of Classical Revolution, which presents “Chamber Music for the People” in over 30 chapters in the US and Europe. On the East Side, the Barking Spider has picked up the mantle, as has The Bottle House and soon, The Beachland Ballroom. We can only hope this is more of a trend than a fad.

Then the idea came to make a recording and release it as a double vinyl LP with download, not as a compact disc. And to do it as a Kickstarter project. Why? I’m guessing it’s the same reason that thousands of bar bands want to make a recording- just to do it. And press it on vinyl because it sounds better and it’s hip. Record it live and capture the intensity of these edgy pieces performed inches away from bar patrons. And include the audience reactions, the wild applause, the shouts of encouragement.

Sean kicks off Side One of the first LP by introducing an early Beethoven Serenade, a red herring among this collection of modern works. But the delightful rendition by Smith on flute, Joanna Patterson Zakany on viola & Amy Lee on violin, sets the tone of fun and settles everyone down and sounds appropriately “classical” enough. Josh talks about the Beethoven, as more conductors should. The audience whoops and hollers. Then the real fun begins.

The Piazzolla Le Grand Tango for viola & piano takes the party in a new direction. Deep, circuitous, emotional, the place is enthralled with Zakany’s viola. Eleven and a half minutes of swerving sideways tango, a dance gone wrong, the audience almost surprised by the quick ending.

The 3-minute Webern Satz features Lee, Zakany and Charles Bernard on cello going off in all directions, challenging under any circumstances, but Smith has let the crowd off the hook with his intro: “I like to think of this as a party scene in a Robert Altman movie… you have layers of people talking at the same time… listening to music like this, you’re allowed not to understand this…” Laughter from the audience. The kicker? Without pause, they go straight into a modern piano rag by Bolcom, totally disarming listeners and eliminating the guilty inclination to applaud the Weburn. Canny sequencing, like a good set list. Joshua Smith’s flute opening to Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of the Faun is positively chilling, and starts off Side Three on LP Two with a bit of familiarity, like seeing an old friend in a bar after a particularly interesting evening.

The Britten Phantasy is introduced by Smith as written by a 19-year-old who was looking for the meaning of life and the meaning of war. The crowd loves Smith’s intro to the Ravel Tzigane as perfect for a “rock star violinist,” encouraging Lee with “You go girl!”

The audience is the real rock star here of course. The Shostakovich Trio starts with an ominous piano figure by the only non-Cleveland Orchestra member, Christina Dahl, and at first, the audience is just chattering away, drinking, talking. But after a few more doomy chords, you hear the audience quieting down, slowly. Then holding their breath.

The “strange and wonderful” (according to Bernard & Dahl’s spoken intro) Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen is strangely, the perfect work for this ensemble at this venue with this audience. To me it’s always seemed a little too academic when heard in a concert hall, but feels right at home here. It kicks off the strongest and final side of the beautifully designed package, which continues with a spirited Passacaglia (After Handel) by Halvorsen, Lee & Zakany eliciting squeals of delight from an audience that has probably never heard the work before. The closer, Part’s Spiegel Im Spiegel is a triumph of the modern age, to have the cojones to play something this beautiful and sad in a drinking establishment with such tenderness and lack of irony. This final track fades to silence before any audience reaction. You’re taken out of the club and into your listening room. It’s a little treat for the vinyl connoisseur.

As with all top-echelon musicians, excellent playing is paramount. There’s been no change to the music, presented with no holds barred. But with a total change in venue, audience, ambience, stage wear, timing, staging. With a respectful but not obsequious audience paying close attention and not applauding between movements, the musicians are freed to make music for just the few people in the bar, rather than nameless patrons in the concert hall. Can you hear the difference between this live recording and most studio or live classical recordings? I think you can. More passion, more intimacy, more fire. More listening. Which is why many people prefer live recordings. But recorded in a night club? Don’t think I’ve heard that before.

And this one is very well recorded by ex-Telarc engineer Thomas Knab, the vinyl is richer and rounder than the review CD copy we initially received. The superb pressing by Cleveland-based Gotta Groove Records is exemplary. Smooth, dark & flawless. The necessary close miking of the instruments provides an audio experience that’s closer to a studio recording than in a live concert hall, seeing as how the small Happy Dog room naturally doesn’t have much reverb. The resultant dryness is an occupational hazard that couldn’t have been avoided. Experiencing Ensemble HD live, sightlines are obstructed and the delicate nature of some classical music is necessarily lost in the far reaches of the Happy Dog’s first floor room with its circular large bar. A more than fair price to pay.

And now, the other shoe is finally dropping. According to a presentation Josh & Joan Katz Napoli, Director of Education and Community Programs for The Cleveland Orchestra gave at a recent National Endowment for the Arts council meeting, “institutional humility,” the crappy economy and the Orchestra’s 6-year Miami residency forced the issue of engagement with new audiences and opened up the opportunity for TCO to reach out in new ways. So May 11-17, 2013, TCO brings their first-ever neighborhood residency to The Happy Dog and the entire Gordon Square neighborhood, performing pop-up small ensemble concerts in venues as unexpected as Sweet Moses Soda Fountain & Treat Shop, Stockyard Meat Company, Gypsy Beans & Baking Company coffee shop, the Battery Park Wine Bar, and, for the first time since 1980, The Cleveland Orchestra itself performing on the West Side of Cleveland at St. Coleman Catholic Church.

The Orchestra is talking about moving the residency around the region each year. They found a way to work around or outside the union trade agreement. Which is a good thing. Because there isn’t much time. Is this a true Classical Revolution or just high culture slumming it? It’s questionable whether classical music, even from musicians at the very highest level, can find an audience in the clubs where most people hang out. And classical musicianship at this level is very very expensive. How many hundred thousand dollar musicians do you think you’ll be hearing in corner bars these days, or ever?

Is it literally too little too late?

The SOBs are weeping, and their cries can be heard in the silence between Ensemble HD gigs at the Happy Dog. Your corner bar isn’t programming classical music. Virtually none of the few children that even play classical music are experiencing the Lakewood Project’s mosh pit. Is this the death throes of classical music? Or the first page of a new chapter in a very beautiful new e-book that we’ll all need to learn how to read?

Let’s start here. For six days, classical music is coming to Cleveland, instead of Cleveland coming to hear classical music at Severance Hall or Blossom Music Center. And now more than once a month, small ensembles will play small clubs, and you might run into classical music accidentally. And you can hold this beautiful double vinyl in your hands and drop the needle whenever you want.

That’s a start, isn’t it?

review by Thomas Mulready

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One Response to “REVIEW: Ensemble HD- Live at the Happy Dog”

  1. Guytano Parks

    …cool – with a capital C*O*O*L!…

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