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You’re in a living room watching the band set up, but this isn’t a typical house party: You’re on the floor, sitting on one of the overstuffed cushions the host has scattered around, watching a string quartet rosin up their bows. A dozen or so other people make plates of cheese and crackers and sip red wine while getting comfortable. You’ve never been to this living room before—in fact, you’ve never been to the house before—and you’re surrounded by strangers. But here you sit, about to listen to a small group of classical musicians play only a few feet from you. A 19th-century European salon? Try a 21st-century D.C. house concert courtesy of the organization Groupmuse. Welcome to modern day chamber music.
Classical music is starting to find another new generation of fans—not with epic performances in plush concert halls, but with a much more DIY approach: house shows. It all started in the winter of 2013 when Sam Bodkin started attending a series of impromptu concerts in friends’ apartments in his native Boston. It was there that he got the idea to create a network through which events like this could happen between strangers. In two short years, his creation, Groupmuse, is already operating in 20 cities around the world, including D.C.
Spreading the gospel of classical music might seem like a niche endeavor, but the New York–based Bodkin sees this as part of a growing national movement. “This is part of a much bigger cultural shift that’s happening,” he says. “People in the rising generation have lost faith in institutions.” Bodkin thinks the way to keep the genre alive is to incorporate it into local communities.
On a recent Sunday evening, the young members of an exceptionally talented string quartet set up in the party room of an apartment complex near the Waterfront Metro station. Even more exceptional: The musicians had never played together before. The boxy room, decked out in globular Christmas lights, offered surprisingly good acoustics. These concerts are attractive to Dhruti Bhagat, a regular Groupmuse attendee, because “it feels like you’re participating in the music itself,” she says. First-timers had come because, as second-time hostess Erin Tariot says, “for ten bucks [it’s] the cheapest, best music ticket in town.”
Groupmuse’s goals are simple: connect people to classical music and their communities using an online platform through which locals with living rooms connect with musicians who have time and talent to spare. The host sets the size and acoustic parameters (“No brass” is an option for people in thin-walled apartments), works out a date with the musicians, and announces the concert on the Groupmuse website where people can sign up. Attendees throw in a minimum $10 donation either in person or through the Groupmuse app to support the musicians, and can bring food or booze according to their host’s house rules.
The literal and figurative meeting point of the connection between music and community is the host’s home. In that sense, Groupmuse is rekindling the essence of chamber music itself, from its earliest days as an art form.
Chamber is a relatively new subgenre of classical music, which is itself a thousand-year-old musical style. In the 1600s, as the cultural power of the Christian church lessened, allowing for the growth of secular institution and the popular influence of other civic and cultural institutions, classical music moved out of the cathedral and into theaters and homes. Chamber music, performed by semi-professional musicians in parlors, became wildly popular thanks in large part to the works of 18th-century composer Franz Josef Haydn, who composed 83 string quartets over his lifetime.
But by the 19th century, chamber music’s popularity began to diminish. Population explosions in cultural city hubs like London, Paris, and Vienna pushed the size of concert halls from about 500 seats to more than 2,000. Larger spaces meant the opportunity for bigger and grander works, like operas and lavishly orchestrated symphonies. Chamber music was pushed to the margins, but it remained important to the creators of the classical canon’s greatest large-scale works: Beethoven wrote around 45 chamber pieces in total, while Johannes Brahms wrote chamber music continuously throughout his life.
Perhaps the most defining feature of chamber music is its intimate size and lack of conductor. There are usually no more than two instruments on a part, a restriction that can bring a much more nuanced set of emotions to the music. Whereas a symphony—usually played by an orchestra of 70 to 100 members—can transmit anger, joy, love, and fear, a chamber ensemble, so very exposed, can emote loneliness, anxiety, quiet longing, and excitement. The absence of a leader also connects the music more immediately with the listener; chamber music ensemble rehearsals knit together each member’s own translation of the repertoire into a coherent narrative of the entire piece. A symphony is a landscape in which one can be alone; a chamber piece is a conversation to which one might contribute.
In some ways, Bodkin would appear to be fighting an uphill battle. Google the term “classical music popularity” and the first headlines you’ll see are fairly grim: “Classical music sales decline: Is classical on death’s door?” from Slate; “Sunday Dialogue: Is Classical Music Dying?” from the New York Times; and “How Do We Fix Classical Music?” from NPR. This isn’t new. Classical music, it seems, has been “on death’s door” for about 700 years. Pope John XXII wrote a worried letter about the state of music and its future—in 1324. “The voices incessantly rock to and fro, intoxicating rather than soothing the ear,” he wrote. “We hasten to forbid these methods.”
Fast forward to 1683, and you’ll find a letter from a classical music historian who opined that “profits at the door, the basis of the business investment, instead of growing are diminishing.” In 1903, an article in the New York Times sounded the death knell of the modern orchestra: “A permanent orchestra, it seems to be pretty well established by American experience, is not at present a paying institution, and is not likely immediately to become so.” But after each solemn death announcement, classical music and its subgenres have risen once again from the grave. Clearly, there is something there that remains of value.
“To be able to share this music that we love like this, it feels like a break from the rigor of the career,” says Peter Kibbe, a Baltimore-based cellist who performed at the most recent Groupmuse performance in D.C. “It’s a bunch of people, getting together, having fun, sharing music.”
During the Groupmuse performance, Kibbe and the quartet played through a number of classic and contemporary pieces, including American composer Edward MacDowell’s “To A Wild Rose,” the fourth movement from Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, the first movement from Beethoven’s fourth string quartet, the second movement from Schubert’s string quartet number 13, a ferocious finale of Mendelssohn’s first string quartet, and a charming medley of Beatles songs.
The normally quiet transitions between pieces gave way to impromptu Q&A sessions, with attendees openly asking questions of the performers: “Why did you choose these pieces?” “Why do you hold your bow like that?” “Why did the first and second violinists switch chairs periodically?” In no concert hall in the world could an audience have a similar experience—and neither could the musicians.
Groupmuse’s low overhead (four full-time and one part-time staff members, a website, and no office space) relieves the pressure to make a profit from each event (100 percent of the donations from each concert go to the musicians). Instead, the company relies on donations, partnerships, and sponsorships to fund operations. And because there’s no need to fill 2,000 seats, the musicians don’t need to pack the repertoire with old favorites and just a few new and different pieces that a patron might dislike. Kibbe and his group have the freedom to choose whatever music brings them the most joy because each Groupmuse concert is unique and untethered from a “season.”
For artists and audience alike, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities to become a part of a long cultural lineage like the one classical music offers. Some events are knowingly and joyfully off-base, like the Renaissance fairs that seek to evoke the feeling of a bygone era while still offering broadly accessible fun. Instead, Groupmuse seeks to establish a strong, new link to a musical heritage stretching back at least 400 years.
“We’re at a moment now where classical music has so much to offer to all walks of life—beauty and depth and a sense of permanence,” Bodkin says. “The instruments the musicians play are sometimes hundreds of years old. Everything is transient in our modern society—except for this.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan