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Classical musicians take over St. Pete brewery to bring chamber music to the people

Man plays guitar with audience watching surrounded by wine barrels.
Meghan Bowman
Josh Hett, a junior at the University of Tampa, gives the final performance for April's Classical Revolution. He played two of the more "challenging" pieces that will also be part of his junior recital at UT.

Once a month, Classical Revolution makes chamber music more accessible to the public. The St. Petersburg chapter takes over Webb's City Cellar for people to enjoy the same music they would at a concert hall — except in flip flops with a cold beer.

It was standing room only on an April Monday night at Webb's City Cellar in St. Petersburg.

People of all ages crowded into the active, chilly cellar where tables and chairs sat next to racks of wine barrels.

They were there to listen to classical musicians play everything from the guitar to oboe.

It's part of a growing movement to make chamber music more accessible to the public and further collaboration among musicians in the area.

It's called Classical Revolution, and it was founded in 2006 in San Francisco by violist Charith Premawardhana. Since then, it has spread to 38 cities globally.

St. Petersburg's chapter was co-founded by Laurel Borden in 2017.

“We kind of treat our monthly event like a open mic night, but for classical music," she said. "So we don't ever tell people like, 'Oh, you can't play that, or we really are looking for only traditional classical music.'”

Borden says the event gives all musicians a chance to play the music they want to play — when and how they want.

Borden is currently on maternity leave, so Rose Supper has been helping run the events in her absence. Supper began helping out after the Covid pandemic ended.

Two bass clarinet players sit on black chairs in front of a black piano on a large red oriental rug.
Meghan Bowman
Bass clarinet players Joseph Beverly and Asher Carlson premiered Michael Hall's piece "Dust Configuration" at Classical Revolution on April 8.

"Being able to come to a bar on a Monday night and hear all of this incredible music — it really opens people's horizons and connects them to the the arts in the community and the performers in the community in a way that is so intimate and special," Supper said.

Supper joked with the audience by playing a few measures of one of Edvard Grieg's most famous compositions, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," before delving into a different piece by the composer titled "In Spring."

Supper said she wanted to share Grieg's "lush, lyrical style" with audience members who might only recognize a few of his compositions. She called the raw and passionate performance "deeply personal" to her.

“I think that emotional connection can only enhance the playing, not only for me but all the performers here,” she said.

Other musicians played pieces from less well-known artists, including one composer who was at the performance.

That included Michael Hall, a brewer by day and composer by night.

"I get to come here and it's like my worlds colliding. My music at a brewery? It's fantastic," he told the audience before his piece "Dust Configuration" premiered, being played by two bass clarinetists, Joseph Beverly and Asher Carlson.

Some Florida Orchestra members also joined the line-up.

Dressed in a colorful shirt without a tie, associate principal cellist Victor Huls kept his beer on a bar stool close to his chair as he played, calling the performances "low-key and fun."

He performed a piece composed by his college professor from the University of Michigan, Paul Schoenfeld, called "Café Music."

One woman and two men stand together holding instruments in front of wine barrels.
Meghan Bowman
Musicians backstage at Classical Revolution before performing a composition by Paul Schoenfeld. (Left to right) Nina Kim, violin; Wesley Ducote, piano; and Victor Huls, cello.

"We all get to bring random anything to the concert," Huls said. "So it's like an open mic night, but much more organized, which is a great thing."

Principal cellist Yoni Draiblate, joined by his wife Kimberly on vocals and Huls on piano, played a Kurt Weill piece titled "Youkali."

Draiblate said performing in the smaller venue is not that different from the large concert halls he usually plays in.

"So here, it's even better," he said. "The essence of us bringing music to the people is not any different in that sense. But it's more personal, they're right there. They're literally on the same floor, drinking beer as well."

Associate principal trombonist Ross Holcombe said he found out about Classical Revolution from other musicians in the orchestra.

"It's a lot more informal, it's a lot more intimate," he said. "There's a place for symphonic music in the big concert hall with 1,000 people listening, but this is a much smaller venue."

Man in blue plaid button up shirt plays trombone in front of velvet green curtain with a lamp behind him.
Meghan Bowman
Florida Orchestra's Ross Holcombe premieres "Ctrl+Alt+deFreak" composed by Zoe Cutler at Classical Revolution. Holcombe played a funky trombone along with a track, something he calls an "outlier" for the event.

"The acoustics are great for smaller ensembles, you definitely would not want to have a huge group in a space like this. So it’s a small space for a little bit smaller sounding music," he added.

Holcombe premiered a piece called "Ctrl+Alt+deFreak" by Zoe Cutler. He called it an "outlier" at the event because the composition leans more on the jazz and funk side of the spectrum as opposed to classical.

But not everyone playing was a professional musician. Josh Hett is a junior music major at the University of Tampa.

He brought his guitar and played two of the songs he worked on for a school recital.

No matter their skill level, the musicians agreed the event's beauty is the freedom — whether a piece of music leans one way or the other, a musician simply signs up and plays whatever they want.

Classical Revolution's final performance before they break for the summer is at Webb's City Cellar on May 13.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.