The Music Is Classical, and the Bar Is Busy
The New York Times | By Anthony Tommasini
In some ways, it was a familiar New York scene: a crowd of people, mostly young, seated at tables in a no-frills, black-walled Greenwich Village music club on Wednesday night, sipping drinks and listening to a group playing its first set.
What was different was the music: the complete works for string quartet by the intensely complex modernist composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), performed by the adventurous Jack Quartet. I never expected to hear these seldom-played pieces at a club on Bleecker Street.
That club is (Le) Poisson Rouge, which opened this summer on the site of the former Village Gate. It was founded by two musicians in their late 20s, Justin Kantor and David Handler, who met as students at the Manhattan School of Music. Exasperated with the straitlaced protocols of concertgoing, Mr. Kantor and Mr. Handler decided to open a club that would present an eclectic mix of programming, not just old and new works from the classical music tradition, but rock, jazz, world music and anything else that might entice people, especially young people, who are curious about out-there music and care little about labels.
The club’s motto is “Serving Art & Alcohol,” and the owners count on revenues from drinks and snacks. The tables were filled on Wednesday night for the Xenakis immersion, and there were standees everywhere, drinks in hand, listening raptly, and then shouting whoops of approval during the ovations.
(Le) Poisson Rouge is following in the path of places like Joe’s Pub in the East Village and Barbès in Park Slope, clubs that mix classical and contemporary fare. Behind its success is an essential programming principle: architecture is everything. If challenging music is presented in an inviting and informal space, the theory goes, then open-minded young audiences will show up, whether the music is Bach, Ligeti or the stylistically eclectic singer-songwriter Corey Dargel, who performed the second show on Wednesday night.
You could argue that the players of the Jack Quartet, who met as students at the Eastman School of Music, presented Xenakis in an almost anti-intellectual manner. There were no program notes and no spoken introductions to the pieces, except for a few teasers from the cellist, Kevin McFarland, who talked of the “insanity level” or the “computer-generated chaos.” Yet these musicians and the proprietors of (Le) Poisson Rouge are on to something. What is most essential is for audiences just to show up and listen.
Though I am in the business of informing people about music, I have to concede that knowing about the matrix of complex theories that generated Xenakis’s music may not help listeners much. Born in Romania of Greek parents, Xenakis was also a trained architect who approached composition almost like an engineer, building “sound constructions,” as he called them, generating musical materials from algorithms, wave forms, spectral screens and stochastic synthesis.
Clearly, what mattered to the musicians and audience at (Le) Poisson Rouge were the visceral energy, weird sound effects, raucous busyness, sometimes pensive beauty and often sheer craziness that, on the surface, can be found in Xenakis’s pieces for string quartet.
In “Tetora” (1990) there were gripping passages in which the string harmonic clusters slither up and down the scale, and episodes in which tightly bound chords pummel along relentlessly, like some fractured Greek folk dance. Amid the wailing, percolating rawness of “ST/4” there were surprising moments in which delicate volleys of pizzicato pitches were traded among the players. And it was gratifying to see the audience so involved that they laughed out loud at Xenakis’s musical pranks, as in “Ergma,” when frenzied outbursts of counterpoint wind down and land with dull thuds on final chords.
Mr. Dargel’s set was a release party for “Other People’s Love Songs,” his new recording of 13 original songs on New Amsterdam Records. As the title implies, these custom-made songs were commissioned by people for their significant others. For this occasion Mr. Dargel was backed by the Now Ensemble, a contemporary-music group.
Mr. Dargel sings in a modest, sweet-toned, conversational way, and writes songs whose lyrics and melodies are at once wistful and wry, tender and irreverent. In “Other People’s Love Songs,” giving voice to the lives and relationships of his subjects, he invests melodies with playful melismatic turns, evoking Kurt Weill cabaret, Latino rhythms and more.
The arrangements for the Now Ensemble, mostly by Mr. Dargel, were highly elaborate, with almost too much going on, though more solid instrumental performances would have helped. On the CD Mr. Dargel’s singing is accompanied by clean and fanciful self-produced electronic tracks.
My only complaint about (Le) Poisson Rouge is that the piped-in music played during breaks — a smattering of jazz, indie rock, hip-hop and classical — is too loud. Not many other people in the club, who chatted away during the breaks, seemed bothered, which I guess dates me.
Still, I’ll be back to hear more music, and to try the dessert I passed on this time: warm chocolate cookies with a White Russian for dipping.
A version of this article appears in print on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Music Is Classical, And the Bar Is Busy and is online here.