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Classical 101

ProMusica Sessions: A Casual New Way To Hear Classical Music In Columbus

color photo of vioinist Rebecca Willie and percussionist Eric Willie in performance
Bill Broadway
Rebecca and Eric Willie will perform the program "Legal Wood" on the ProMusica Sessions series Sunday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Brother's Drake Meadery.

A marimbist, a cellist with a boom box and two double bassists walk into a bar.

No, not the setup for a joke. Instead, the overview of an offbeat classical music series, one created by members of one of Columbus’ top classical music performing organizations as a new musical offering for the city.

With support from PNC Arts Alive, the ProMusica Sessions will unfold in a series of six informal, conversational performances from August until November 7.

The sessions will showcase members of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra playing full-length programs of outside-the-box repertoire in designated performance spaces at Columbus restaurants, bars and breweries known for their eclectic music lineups and unique menus.

The impetus for the ProMusica Sessions came from ProMusica’s musicians themselves.

“A number of our musicians had approached me and said, ‘We do a chamber series at the Worthington United Methodist Church, but could we kind of take that concept and do it in other places that would not be our normal audiences, would not be in certain type of venues?’” said ProMusica Chamber Orchestra Executive Director Janet Chen. “So it was kind of a convergence of knowing that our musicians would like to do something like this, would be up for it and would like to take ownership of it.” 

That ownership comes with the artistic blessing of ProMusica Music Director David Danzmayr, who says he was hands-off when it came to programming the ProMusica Sessions.

“I’ve been absolutely not involved in the programming, and that was the exact idea from the beginning,” Danzmayr said. “I think music directors have their hands in far too many details sometimes, and we have such incredibly smart musicians and great musicians that can really sort themselves out themselves, and why should I tell them what they should play?”

The first of the ProMusica Sessions will feature a string quartet of Columbus-based ProMusica members in “A Night at the Movies,” selections from well-known film scores, Tuesday, August 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.

Cincinnati-based cellist Nat Chaitkin will perform “Declassifying the Classical,” classical works blended with rock, hip-hop, tango and other genres, Tuesday, August 20 at 8 p.m. at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza and Live Music on North High Street.

The husband-wife duo of Eric and Rebecca Willie, of North Carolina, will present “Legal Wood,” a performance of contemporary works for violin and marimba duo, Sunday, September 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Brother’s Drake Meadery.

Columbus double bassists John Pellegrino and Jena Huebner will perform “Double the Bass,” Thursday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.

Four Chicago-based ProMusica musicians will showcase string quartet versions of tangos in “It Takes Four to Tango,” Thursday, October 24 at 8 p.m. at Natalie’s on King Ave.

Albuquerque-based cellist Joel Becktell wraps up the 2019 ProMusica Sessions with “Bach in Time” Thursday, November 7 at 8 p.m. at Natalie’s on King Ave.

ProMusica cellist Nat Chaitkin's TEDx Cincinnati talk about his "Declassifying Classical Music: Bach & Boom Box" presentation.


Although the ProMusica Sessions represent a new venture, the series is in line with some of the other types of performances ProMusica already presents beyond its regular season concerts.

“We play the library concerts and we play in the summer in Franklin Park,” Danzmayr said. “So basically we started from the beginning to go to where people are and bring the music to them. And I think it’s a very logical extension to that idea. Wherever you find a crowd of people who want to listen to music, you play for them.”

“Not just background music”

Unlike a typical concert hall, the venues for the ProMusica Sessions won’t serve up gilt and velvet, but they will bring you cocktails and appetizers, along with musical selections you won’t hear in an average orchestra concert. And the relatively small performance spaces at the session venues means that the performances can take on the flavor of casual conversations between musicians and audience members.

“We wanted venues that would be not only receptive to the idea, but also understand that this is not just background music,” Chen said. “They needed to have a stage, per se, or a space in which they have had bands or singers or other musicians perform, so that the people attending could actually hear the musicians speak, really kind of feel like they’re engaged.”

The venues hosting the ProMusica Sessions also contribute substantially to Columbus’ music scene and have reputations for supporting local musical talent. 

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing frequently hosts local musicians working in other genres, especially folk, bluegrass and jazz. The restaurant hosted its first classical music event in January, with one of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Pint-Sized Performances.

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Events Coordinator Korbin Gebhart says he’s keen to add more classical music to the lineup.

“I think that all music is important in our community. I think it brings life, I think it brings flavor,” Gebhart said. “I think getting the classical aspect out there is important. And particularly what ProMusica’s doing in the community is really valuable, and I‘d like to help them bring light to that.”

Conversations with Bach

The programs ProMusica’s musicians have created for the ProMusica Sessions allow them to do the two things they love best – play their instruments, and chat with audiences about the music they love.

The husband-wife duo of Eric and Rebecca Willie will perform Legal Wood, a program of contemporary music for violin and marimba, on September 29 at Brothers Drake Meadery. Their unusual combination of instruments features instruments – especially the marimba – not normally showcased in orchestra concerts.

“Normally when you come to an orchestra concert, I’m going to play bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle,” Eric Willie said, “but here I’m going to be playing marimba, which is an instrument that definitely is not part of the orchestra’s instrumentation. It’s a fun series to expose listeners to different sections of the orchestra that aren’t normally featured.”   

Many of the works the duo will perform on the ProMusica Sessions were written specifically for them, which allows the musicians to give audiences the inside scoop on their collaborations with the composers who, today, are creating the repertoire for this combination of instruments.

“We can actually talk about the composers that we’re playing on a personal level and tell fun stories about them and how the pieces came about, which you can’t do quite the same way when you’re talking about Brahms or Bach,” Rebecca Willie said. “Since we actually know these people personally, it kind of makes it a little more fun for us to be able to talk about them as people, too.”

Cellist Joel Becktell created “Bach in Time,” the program he’ll perform on the November 7 ProMusica Session, precisely because he wanted to be able to have a conversation with Bach – and to bring Bach in conversation with today’s audiences.

“I have always been deeply disappointed that I will never meet Bach or Mozart or Beethoven,” Becktell said.

Performing Bach’s music on modern cello and baroque cello, and chatting about it with his audiences, as Becktell does in “Bach in Time,” is the closest thing Becktell says he will ever experience to being able to step into a time machine and bring Bach into a conversation with those today who enjoy his music.

“A huge part of wanting to play their music and wanting to play it with as much contemporaneous insight as I can just has to do with getting as close as I can and getting the audience as close as we can to really just having a face-to-face meeting with those amazing sages of our art.”

Maybe with a beer or two.

For the full schedule of the 2019 ProMusica Sessions, and to reserve tickets visit https://promusicacolumbus.org/new-announcing-promusica-sessions-line-up/

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.