The New York Times | By Anthony Tommasini
(Le) Poisson Rouge, the coolest place to hear contemporary music in New York, did little to celebrate its first anniversary on Sunday night. A renovated Bleecker Street club, formerly the Village Gate, it presented a typically adventurous program. Alarm Will Sound, the brilliant 20-member contemporary-music ensemble, conducted by Alan Pierson, played five polystylistic pieces by the audaciously eclectic composer Derek Bermel, who draws from firsthand exposure to indigenous music of West Africa and elsewhere.
John Schaefer, the WNYC announcer, introduced the program, interviewed Mr. Bermel and led a round of applause for (Le) Poisson Rouge, the only acknowledgment of its birthday. Yet in just a year this black-walled Greenwich Village basement club, which presents all styles of contemporary music (classical, indie rock, jazz, electro-acoustic, ethnic), has become so essential to the New York music scene that it seems as if it had been around longer.
There are alternative sites for experimental contemporary music, like Joe’s Pub and the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, Roulette in SoHo, Barbès and the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. But the programming of contemporary music from the classical tradition is especially lively at (Le) Poisson Rouge.
A “multimedia art cabaret,” as the club bills itself, (Le) Poisson Rouge was founded by David Handler, a violinist and composer, and Justin Kantor, a cellist, who began envisioning an alternative space for new music when they were students at the Manhattan School of Music. They were exasperated with the traditional concert setting, with its “preacher and congregation seating,” as the lanky, bearded Mr. Handler, 28, said in a recent interview.
“Our mission here has been to foster a more symbiotic relationship between art and revelry,” he said. “Only in recent history have art and revelry diverged, and both are suffering from the breakup.”
I made my first visit to the club in October, when the dynamic Jack Quartet played the complete string quartets by the thorny modernist Iannis Xenakis, who died in 2001. I never expected to hear these hard-driven, complex pieces played in a single program, let alone at a club before a packed house of mostly young people, sitting at tables and sipping drinks. (Le) Poisson Rouge relies on food and beverages to turn a profit. Its motto: “Serving Art and Alcohol.”
The barely known Xenakis quartets might have seemed a hard sell. But the club routinely attracts listeners curious about any kind of out-there contemporary music. The Jack Quartet certainly gets around the club scene in New York. A concert for its new recording of the Xenakis quartets on the Mode label will take place on July 5 at Joe’s Pub, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Last month at (Le) Poisson Rouge I was exhilarated to hear a vibrant performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” a path-breaking atonal score from 1912. Schoenberg’s music is still stigmatized and feared by conservative segments of the classical music audience. So you can imagine how gratified the composer would have been to hear this fresh, keenly dramatic account of “Pierrot Lunaire” presented at an informal club for an eager and receptive audience.
In a compelling performance, the veteran soprano Lucy Shelton was joined by five accomplished young instrumentalists from the Ensemble ACJW, part of the training academy run jointly by the Juilliard School and Carnegie Hall, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.
In many ways the club was an ideal place to hear Schoenberg’s seminal piece. “Pierrot Lunaire,” a setting of German translations of 21 French poems by the symbolist Belgian writer Albert Giraud, came out of the Berlin cabaret tradition. It was written for a noted actress, Albertine Zehme, who performed it in a Pierrot clown costume. Schoenberg composed the solo part in a Sprechstimme style, half spoken and half sung. “Pierrot Lunaire” may be a formidable modernist score, but it is also a dramatic recitation with weirdly mesmerizing music.
Given the dismaying lack of knowledge about classical music among young audiences today, (Le) Poisson Rouge and similar alternative sites are making a virtue of necessity. If you program Xenakis and Schoenberg alongside indie rock and experimental jazz, you are inviting audiences to put aside preconceptions and respond instinctively to everything.
Mr. Kantor and Mr. Handler are not enemies of categories. They acknowledge that different styles of new music come from different traditions, and they cede most of the programming decisions to a roster of experts, among them Ronen Givony, who lines up classical contemporary ensembles. Yet stylistic categories of modern music are blurring as never before.
Take indie rock. “These days the pieces are longer, there is less emphasis on words and a more experimental approach to instrumentation,” Mr. Handler said. So why not mix it up?
On Wednesday night audiences at (Le) Poisson Rouge can hear Dinosaur Feathers, Browns and pow wow!, three indie rock and pop groups. But on Monday the contemporary ensemble Signal plays Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, and on Tuesday the pianist Aki Takahashi plays works by Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi and that (Le) Poisson Rouge regular, Xenakis.
There is no set arrangement for paying performers at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Depending on circumstances and the clout of the artists, some receive guaranteed fees. Others take a percentage of the receipts, or a combination of the two. A group can clear from $100 or less to $1,000 or more, Mr. Handler said.
With the severity of the recession, (Le) Poisson Rouge and similar clubs are at least offering artists, especially younger ones, an outlet. But another way to look at it is that these clubs are benefiting from the economic downturn, which is leaving performers eager for any exposure. Still, at every concert I have attended at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the classical performers have seemed elated to be reaching new audiences in this unconventional and liberating setting.
On Monday night the pianist Bruce Brubaker, who has championed Minimalist and post-Minimalist composers, played a solo program of subdued works drawn from his new recording, “Time Curve” (Arabesque). He opened with “The Time Curve Preludes,” Book 1, by the American composer William Duckworth. Written in the late 1970s, these pieces subtly combine haunting repetitive patterns with hints of diverse musical idioms, like scat singing, Bartok dances and medieval chant.
As Mr. Brubaker explained to the audience, the preludes require the performer to place narrow metal weights on various keys in the piano’s low register. This lifts the dampers on the selected notes, allowing the strings to resonate sympathetically as nearby keys are struck, creating a backdrop of continuous, softly droning sound.
Mr. Brubaker concluded his program with sensitive performances of ruminative pieces by Philip Glass: the Étude No. 5 and “Metamorphosis Two.” When the undulant chord patterns of the final work faded away, a rapt audience let the silence linger, then broke into whoops and cheers. One person shouted, “Thank you.”
A good start to Year 2 at (Le) Poisson Rouge.
A version of this article appears in print on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Feeding Those Young and Curious Listeners and online here.