(Le) Poisson Rouge's sense of musical adventure

Los Angeles Times | By Mark Swed

A million New Yorkers can be wrong. So naturally, I had my suspicions about all the extravagant enthusiasm from the press and the local music community for (Le) Poisson Rouge, the club for new and various kinds of music that opened in Greenwich Village a year ago.

Two entrepreneurial musicians in their late 20s have been credited with rejuvenating the concert experience by enticing young audiences to listen to sophisticated -- and in some instances quite difficult – works in a setting where food and drinks are being served.  Their mission, they say, is “to revive the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry.”  
I finally got to the corner of Bleecker and Thompson streets Monday night.  The 7:30 show was a banal refashioning of John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano that made a tepid travesty of a radical mid-20th century American classic.  The 9:30 show featured a young Russian violinist shamelessly promoting his new recording of Korngold’s schmaltzy Violin Concerto with a program of short, movie-centric violin pieces more suitable for the hardly hip Boston Pops. 

And yet, something is happening here.  The place isn’t merely cool, as the New York Times has dubbed it, the venue is a downright musical marvel.  I wasn’t miserable on Monday, which I might have been with this program.  Instead, I found the evening such a pleasure that I hope there is room on the crowded (Le) Poisson Rouge bandwagon for yet another critic.


(Le) Poisson Rouge (French for red fish) isn’t a dive and it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and those things are important.  With funding from private investors, David Handler (a violinist and composer) and Justin Kantor (a cellist and teacher), who met as students at the Manhattan School of Music, took over the Village Gate, the famed jazz club which had closed in 1993.  They decorated the space in red and black and installed a fish-tank chandelier.  They hired a decent chef and installed high-end audio and video equipment. 

Then they tore down musical walls.  Recognizing that young audiences are no longer genre-specific in their tastes, Handler and Kantor wanted an environment friendly to rock, electronica, folk, jazz, world music, new music, more traditionally classical chamber music and all the hyphenated genres that fit within the cracks.

To help program classical and new music along with indie rock, they hired Ronen Givony, a young production coordinator at Nonesuch Records.  Three years ago, Givony started Wordless Music, which puts on unpredictable concerts of new music and pop music in small churches, museums, modest concert halls and immodest band shells at Lincoln Center and in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  From the start the series proved a huge success.  Its innovative programs attract the crowds everyone else is looking for: eager, opened-minded listeners of all ages and from all walks of life.

Givony’s programs at (Le) Poisson Rouge are mostly in the early part of the week.  Weekends tend to be given over to more popular rock acts, which help pay the bills.  But nothing is set in stone, which is really what (Le) Poisson Rouge is all about.

The club itself is highly flexible.  The tables and chairs for 250 can be removed to triple the capacity for popular pop shows.  Once, for a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the performers were placed in the center of the room and the audience sat on the floor.  A small adjoining bar is open during the day and in the evening hosts poetry readings and intimate concerts.  Its wall comes down, too, when a bigger space is needed. 

I was unlucky about the night I happened to pick, given how many first-rate performers play (Le) Poisson Rouge.  Had I been there a week earlier, for instance, I might have heard the luminous Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi.  Baroque opera has been put on here, and a 30-piece ensemble gave the New York premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Fourth Symphony in this night club.

Still, on Monday a sense of adventure was unmistakable.  So, too, was the sense that (Le) Poisson Rouge is more about music than revelry.  Food and drink are there to put you in a good mood.  But once the music starts, the hall darkens and people listen intently.  What won me over, in fact, was the extraordinary way this space focuses a listener’s attention.  A great sound system also helps.

The pianist for “Sonatas and Interludes” was David Broome, and he tried something new.  He played the sonatas to silly films by Justin Blome and he exchanged Cage’s four interludes with newly written ones by young Minimalists (Paul Friedrich Frick, Marc Chan, Kevin Sims and Yoav Pasovsky). 

The piano wasn’t carefully prepared.  Broome dramatized abstract music to make it fit scenes of flashing signals, rolling balls and smudges of color.  He ended with Cage’s silent piece, “4’33”,” performed to the visual hackneyed accompaniment of lampposts glowing in the snow.  A failed experiment, to be sure.  But as long as (Le) Poisson Rouge is willing to function as a musical petri dish, some things will grow. 

The late show featured an ingratiating young Russian violinist, Philippe Quint, whose recording of Korngold’s concerto came out this week on Naxos.  With accompanist Min Kwon, he played a reduction for violin and piano of the concerto’s first movement.  Quint surrounded the movement with short works by such other composers who crossed over between film to the concert hall as Saint-Saens, John Corigliano, John Williams and Nino Rota.  An odd electricity was in the air.

Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and Korngold’s Violin Concerto are American works from the mid ‘40s by composers on the opposite sides of the aesthetic fence.  But it is evidently part of the (Le) Poisson Rouge philosophy that once the obstruction is down, the experimental and the Romantic music can coexist and commonality is often the reward.

Before playing a short violin piece by Rota, the composer of the score for “La Dolce Vita,” Quint told the audience that Sandra Tesi, who had a small role in the Fellini film, was in the audience.  Had a flu bug not gotten in the way, she might have acted opposite Cage. 

The composer was visiting Italy when Fellini was shooting in the late ‘50s, and he asked Cage to be in the film.  But Cage had caught whatever was going around in Milan and didn’t feel like delaying his flight back to New York by a few days. 

I can’t imagine such a coincidence as this one, Monday, ever occurring anywhere but here, where a red fish is clearly no red herring.  May it spawn. 

-- Mark Swed

A version of this article is available online here.


David Team