As the strings exhaled the final notes of Beethoven's String Trio in G major, audience members murmured, breaking the tension of their perfect silence. This was a rare classical music experience: listening to world-class musicians in a venue where the wood of their instruments echoed, and their faces could be read.
"I can listen to a CD or a DVD and hear music," said Anita Macias-Howard, sitting near the front of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis. "At these venues I can hear and see the music."
Accordo plays the final concert of its third season Monday at Christ Church, and it is an example of a small-venue classical music trend.
At the March concert, different pairings of the Accordo members soared through the Beethoven, Dvorak's string quartet in C Major and a 2004 work by Jeffery Cotton for violin and percussion. Every squeak on the fingerboards reverberated off the church's blond brick walls. The complementary musical roles played by the first and second violin, the viola and the cello were transparently evident. So, as Maiya Papach's viola provided a muscular structure, Steven Copes' violin soared freely above it. At other points, we could hear clearly the melody passing from one instrument to another.
Is this the future?
The Accordo experience could be a glimpse of the future in classical music. A recent New York Times article described musicians who have stepped away from the grand halls and formal concerts and become small-business entrepreneurs. Accordo consists primarily of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra players, with a prominent interloper from the Minnesota Orchestra and important guests. None of the members would suggest that these gigs will supplant their bread-and-butter membership in the premiere Twin Cities musical institutions, but they recognize the special experience of playing and hearing classical music in small venues.
Macias-Howard, who lives in Edina, does, too.
"I like that I can see their fingers moving over the neck of their instruments and watch their body and facial movement," she said. "I can even hear them taking deep breaths."
Macias-Howard and her husband, Charlie, became Accordo fans through a friend who knows Minnesota Orchestra principal cellist Tony Ross, who performs with Accordo. Avid music fans, the Macias-Howards enjoy the informality and intimacy -- and the texture of information that is provided. Before the Dvorak quartet, for example, Copes told the piece's history and what to listen for in the music.
"I enjoy that the program notes are spoken by the artists," Macias-Howard said. "I feel like I'm being told a story."
Kate Nordstrum, newly appointed producer of special projects at the SPCO, has been riding the leading edge of the small-venue classical scene for several years. Accordo grew out of conversations she had with Copes, the SPCO concertmaster. Nordstrum was then music curator at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, bringing in such groups as the International Contemporary Ensemble and composer Nico Muhly to the 200-seat venue. Accordo played their first concert in September 2009.
The Southern's financial collapse in the spring of 2011 left Accordo without a house and Nordstrum without a job. Both landed on their feet, Nordstrum with the SPCO and Accordo at Christ Church Lutheran, a south Minneapolis midcentury house of worship designed by architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen.
Musicians, Nordstrum said, are looking for other ways of presenting their work. Nationally, the New York Times told the story of Declassified, a group of young classical musicians who have circled their wagons amid the changing orchestral world. Just as bloggers and alternative online sites have challenged the supremacy of mainstream media, new methods of delivering classical music to the masses are evolving. The audiences might not be massive, but the sound and experience is intended to compensate.
It's all music
Copes says that from the musician's standpoint, you have the same mindset no matter what the venue. But he admits something ineffable about the intimate space created when the walls confine and the audience numbers are not in four digits.
"There was a huge blizzard a few years ago, and we played for nine people at the Southern," Copes said. "It was a very special experience."
He and Nordstrum both indicate that next season in Christ Church Lutheran will offer a few enhancements for the audience -- better lighting and risers for the musicians so that sight lines improve. Also, the group will expand to four programs over a longer time period and add players to the ensemble.
Erin Keefe, for example, the new concertmaster at the Minnesota Orchestra, will play with Accordo, along with violist Rebecca Albers. The season will be announced at Monday's concert.
There is a ceiling, though, for expansion. Copes said the group has talked about a tour and doing more venues, but until further notice all these musicians are beholden to larger interests.
"This series is a natural outgrowth of what we do," Copes said. "Our work in the orchestras, though, is our full-time job."
After Nordstrum left the Southern, the SPCO hired her to program its music room, a space where the orchestra rehearses and does small concerts for special events.
Nordstrum and the SPCO have devised a six-program season beginning next fall, titled Liquid Music. Most of the concerts will be in the music room, which holds about 200 people in a cabaret set-up. One show is set for the Walker Art Center and another is targeted at the Amsterdam Bar, down the street in downtown St. Paul.
"I'm really eager to see how it works at the Amsterdam to see if we could do something regularly there," Nordstrum said.
Shes got a taste of the club experience at the end of March when New York composer Judd Greenstein and friends did a concert at the 90-seat Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Violist Nadia Sirota played work by Muhly and then joined a quartet of Minnesota Orchestra string players to perform Greenstein's "The Night Gatherers." It was a rare, funky experience that turned south Minneapolis into Greenwich Village for an evening.
"There are all sorts of interesting projects that should be small-scale rather than large-scale in nature," Nordstrum said. "Appropriate spaces that have the right atmosphere can do a lot for the music."