Imagine a situation where, for whatever reason, a classical music lover can no longer afford tickets for concerts. Perhaps there’s been a job loss, an expensive medical condition or simply an ambitious remodeling project diverting household funds. How would that person deal? How would he or she cope without the cultural nourishment of regular concert attendance?
The answer is, she or he doesn’t have to. At least not in Minnesota — especially not in the Twin Cities. Here there are free classical concerts everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.
This summer I saw a bustling production of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” while visiting Brainerd, and it was entirely free. Next came a Minnesota Orchestra concert at the Commons park in Minneapolis, also free. Then a no-charge chamber music recital at the Wicked Wort Brewing Co. in Robbinsdale.
The list goes on. At least 20 Twin Cities organizations offered free classical concerts so far this year, with more than two dozen confirmed (by my count) for November and December alone. What’s with the proliferation of these free concerts? And who, exactly, is financing them?
“We want to serve as many music lovers as we can,” said Barry Kempton, artistic and executive director of the Schubert Club, one of the oldest U.S. classical music societies. “And price is a barrier for some people.”
The Schubert Club still presents plenty of ticketed events, including upcoming dates with elite ensembles such as the Dover Quartet (4 p.m. Sun.) and Accordo (Nov. 27). For the past 25 years, it has offered free performances most Thursdays during the club’s regular season via its Courtroom Concert series at St. Paul’s Landmark Center. Far from being a token gesture, Kempton views these recitals as central to the Schubert Club mission. “The number of people who come every week is proof that we’re serving a purpose,” he said.
In the next two months alone, these Thursday concerts will host appearances by the Twin Cities-based Lux String Quartet (noon Thu.), a recital of songs by Minneapolis composer David Evan Thomas (Dec. 14), plus a seasonal concert of carols by Minnesota composers (Dec. 21). “The Courtroom Concert series is about showcasing the very best of Minnesota’s classical artists,” Kempton said. “I am regularly delighted with the quality. It is always good. And it’s sometimes great.”
Indeed, the courtroom series costs the Schubert Club a handsome $25,000 a year to produce, partly due to musician fees. How does the organization pay for that?
“We’re blessed with an endowment,” explained Kempton, “and with donors who want us to provide music for every music lover, not just people who can afford tickets.”
No cost for cool
Free concerts come in many shapes and sizes, with some Twin Cities organizations offering less conventional listening experiences.
Case in point: LOFTrecital is the brainchild of pianist James Barnett, who hosted his first free mini-recitals in 2011 at his Chicago condo after finishing graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. The aim was primarily artistic — he wanted to do “repertoire that doesn’t get done very often, and that he feels people should be hearing,” said LOFTrecital managing director Bergen Baker.
Barnett soon moved back to Minneapolis, where he and Baker cultivated a distinctly intimate scene. A soprano by trade, Baker described the LOFTrecital vibe like this: “Come, bring a friend, bring a bottle of wine to share. We’ll provide the food. We’re going to enjoy a concert of 50 to 75 minutes. And we’ll socialize in a relaxed environment where we can meet and greet with the artists.”
Private benefactors make these events possible, with additional revenue from donations by the growing LOFTrecital audience. Just 15 people attended that first LOFTrecital in Chicago, a Bastille Day celebration with songs and arias by Massenet and Poulenc. The number has since grown to approximately 150 people per concert, often including a clutch of 20-somethings who don’t look like typical concertgoers.
The organization’s list of venues keeps expanding, too. Barnett was set to play Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with Chicago violinist Rachel Brown on Saturday at Minneapolis’ Norseman Distillery (complete with craft cocktails). Back in September, New York’s acclaimed Lysander Piano Trio opened the LOFTrecital season at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, surrounded by beautiful oil paintings.
These concerts can feel more like bespoke hospitality packages than giveaways, but Baker said LOFTrecital will remain free. “It’s central to who we are,” she said. “It’s enabled us to grow an audience that is diverse in age and cultural background. We get people who’ve never been to a classical concert before.”
Quality for free
Baker and Kempton surmised that the rise of free concerts is, at least in part, a reaction to all the free music on the internet nowadays. Why pay for concerts when people can find great audio on their smartphones? Prying potential concertgoers from Spotify or YouTube will surely continue to be a major hurdle for 21st-century music organizations.
One thing is clear, though: The days when “free” implied second-rate (or worse) are forever gone. Some of my liveliest, most stimulating experiences this year took place at concerts that didn’t cost a penny: A boisterous evening of old-school brass band music. A rollicking performance of a rare Dominick Argento opera. An absorbing encounter with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio.
With more classical freebies coming up before Christmas, my calendar is looking fuller than ever. But cost (or lack thereof) is only part of the appeal.
As a classical music lover, what I truly value are the venues flecked with new faces, the opportunities to hear pieces rarely performed in mainstream concerts, the excuses for visiting fascinating new recital spaces. Free concerts such as these make it an exciting time to be flicking through the weekly listings, highlighter in one hand, bank card conspicuously absent from the other.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.