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Classical Music

10 Curious Classical Music Venues

Classical music organizations are seeking new audiences, and they’re going to unexpected places to find them.


Not that long ago, people had to go to a concert hall to see a classical music performance. But for some audiences, the concert hall experience is unappealing and financially out of reach. Maybe a desire to reach these audiences is what has begun to motivate classical music organizations and musicians to take the music out of the concert hall and into unexpected places. Whatever the inspiration behind this trend, these non-traditional venues create new frameworks for the music that make it fresh for audiences of all kinds. Here are ten of our favorite classical music performances in strange places.


1. At a nightclub:

San Francisco Symphony conductor and music director Michael Tilson Thomas took the Symphony’s rehearsal space  a big warehouse with 50-foot ceilings  and turned it into a classical music nightclub called the SoundBox. Audiences sit on the floor, hang out at the bar, and are just feet away from the musicians who play in front of a giant video screen. And it’s all for $25 a ticket. The Symphony’s four-month season at SoundBox ended this April. All nine shows were sold out.  


2. In prison:

According to their website, the Piatigorsky Foundation “is dedicated to making live classical music an integral part of everyday life for communities throughout the United States. Gregor Piatigorsky…believed that music is not a luxury for an elite few, but a necessity of life for all.” To that end, the Foundation brings classical music to non-traditional venues. Watch pianist Simone Dinnerstein play Bach for inmates at Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. (Note: The concert in this video was organized by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Dinnerstein also played a Piatigorsky-organized performance at Avoyelles Correctional Center in Louisiana, but we could find no footage of that concert.)


3. Behind a desk in an NPR office:

Bob Boilen is the host of the online NPR music show, All Songs Considered, and the creator of the Tiny Desk Concert series. The series started in 2008 when NPR Music’s Stephen Thompson jokingly invited a musician to perform behind Boilen’s desk. Since then, many bands, chamber music groups, and musicians have played in that spot and they’re all captured in an extensive video archive. Here’s the Dublin Guitar Quartet in one of Tiny Desk’s many classical music performances.

4. In a gay bar:

Another online series by NPR called Field Recordings captures all kinds of musicians in unusual settings. In this video, mezzo-soprano and LGBT rights supporter Joyce DiDonato performs at the historic Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall is a gay bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, a multi-night riot broke out; many mark that riot as the beginning of the gay rights movement. In this goosebump-inducing performance, DiDonato sings “When I am Laid in the Earth,” from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, in memory of a gay man who was the victim of a hate crime in the neighborhood.

5. In a cave:

Houston’s Axiom Quartet recently played a concert inside of the Cave Without a Name (yep – that’s its name) in Boerne, Texas, 80 feet below ground. That’s about all you need to know to enjoy this video.


6. In a subway station:

In 2007, as a sort of social experiment, the Washington Post asked violinist Joshua Bell to pose as a street performer in a Metro station in Washington D.C.. He played for morning commuters on a violin that cost over $3 million. Famously, he was largely ignored that morning, and only recognized by one person. This video is of that 2007 performance. In 2014, he played an encore performance in another Metro station to a huge audience of fans.


7. At the park:

Cellist Matt Haimovitz, who often collaborates with pianist and From the Top host Christopher O’Riley, is known for playing in unusual venues. For example, he was the first classical musician to play in the famous CBGB nightclub, usually known for punk and new wave acts like the Ramones and Misfits. In this video, Haimovitz plays the first movement of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in a spontaneous concert on New York’s High Line – a defunct elevated rail track that has been turned into a popular park.


8. In an Amazon Original Series:

Mozart in the Jungle (2014) is a TV series starring Gael García Bernal, based on the book by oboist Blair Tindall. It follows the fictional New York Symphony and its musicians through a transitional period as they gain a new music director  the infamous Rodrigo. While the show’s bawdiness sparked some controversy, like the other examples in this article, it frames classical music in a different light, putting it in reach of new audiences.


9. At a music festival alongside indie rock acts like tUnEyArDs, Swans, the National, and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood:

The Big Ears Festival, which takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee, is part of a new breed of music festival that seeks to cross genres and bring all kinds of musicians together. According to its website, “It celebrates the never-ending adventure of artistic creation and exploration.” The Festival has hosted everyone from composer Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet, to indie bands like Vampire Weekend and St. Vincent


10. In the produce aisle:

Classic Fm celebrated its 20th birthday by bringing classical musicians to perform Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” in a grocery store. The result will give you a lump in your throat. 

Thumbnail image: the Axiom Quartet performing in the Cave Without a Name. Photo courtesy of the artists’ website.