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WQXR Features

Café Concert: Classical Jam

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VIDEOS: Watch Classical Jam Perform in the WQXR Cafe

Many arts managers pay lip-service to the importance of bringing classical music to new audiences. Classical Jam, a freewheeling ensemble of five New York soloists and chamber players, wants to make it happen.

A day after playing a set in the WQXR Café (below), the quintet traveled uptown for a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center where the audience consisted of squirming toddlers, grizzled Upper West Siders and post-brunch hipsters, possibly intrigued by the group's earnest yet catchy name. The program spanned J.S. Bach, improvisation and a tribute to subway bucket drummers.

The members of Classical Jam – flutist Marcos Granados, violinist Jennifer Choi, violist Cyrus Beroukhim, cellist Wendy Law and percussionist Justin Hines – met a decade ago as conservatory students (collectively they are graduates of Juilliard, the Oberlin Conservatory, Indiana University and the New England Conservatory).

Law said she formed the group to bring classical music to new audiences, especially those who feel they don't identify with it.

“About five or six years ago, I was just sick and tired of people telling me that classical music is dying and I thought there must be a way of trying to engage people in new ways,” she said. “It’s through how we program the music. So we thought we can compose the music ourselves, we can choose different genres of music but all under the big umbrella of classical music.”

Classical Jam’s Lincoln Center concert was typical of their broad repertoire, featuring a tango by Piazzolla, a jazzy take on Bach’s The Art of Fugue, an original composition by Hines and, a particular audience-pleaser, the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 played along to a video of the shaving scene from Charlie Chaplin's film “The Great Dictator.”

At a few points in the program, audience members were invited to participate, singing a theme or thwacking a drum on stage. The light educational slant comes with the territory; members of the ensemble are teaching artists at such organizations as the New York Philharmonic and the 92nd Street Y.

Several pieces in Classical Jam's repertoire also feature improvisation -- usually not part of the classical musician's toolkit but in keeping with the group's founding spirit. "One of the things about Classical Jam is we’re trying to push ourselves to redefine what ‘classical’ improvisation is,” said Granados. "So we’re not jazzers but we keep on trying to find out what that means.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production & Text: Brian Wise