Chances are when you think “epic Saturday night,” you are not thinking Beethoven. I don’t know you, but I’m just guessing.
My relationship with classical music is strained at best. After 10 years of playing the bass in public school orchestra — and that time(s) I fell asleep at the Metropolitan Opera — my parents finally gave up hope that I would be the next Lorin Maazel. I’m not opposed to catching a Philharmonic performance; you could even find some choice classical music on my iPod. But usually, you can find me at Williamsburg Music Hall or at some secret location in a random Brooklyn neighborhood with a weird European DJ. If you want me to attend a classical performance, it has to be something cool.
Enter SubCulture (already we’re off to a good start with a name like that).
Tired and hungover from the previous night’s 4 a.m. antics out in Bed Stuy, dragging myself from Astoria to the East Village to be intimately involved with Beethoven was losing out to sweatpants, Seamless, and Tinder. But with the promise that this venue was something unlike anything I had ever experienced, I decided to suck it up.
SubCulture lives on Bleeker and Lafayette underneath the Lynn Redgrave Theater. This East Village performance space, open since 2013, is all about musical immersion and taking the performance experience to the next level. The underground listening room (underground in style, but also literally under the ground) is a far cry from the stuffy, velvet-and-gold trimmed music halls that we are supposed to revere. Industrial-chic is more what they go for at SubCulture, with slate, wood, exposed brick, steel pipes and bare bulbs. The brick-and-steel bar (yes, a bar!) is backlit with a rotating neon color scheme. It’s like Avery Fisher got drunk at a loft in Bushwick.
SubCulture isn’t just about classical music. The programming has partnerships with the New York Philharmonic, but also hosts jazz series, folk, pop artists like Andrew WK, Mary Lambert, and Stephen Kollogg, and lately, has been dipping into the comedy sphere with top names like Aziz Ansari, Chelsea Peretti, and Rory Scovel.
Tonight’s program was a midnight performance of Beethoven’s “Opus 132 in A Minor,” played by The Ariel Quartet. This group of young musicians was formed in Israel 16 years ago when its members were young students, and they have been performing together ever since. Toting around a large satchel of accolades, including the Cleveland Quartet Award, the group is the faculty quartet-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. They also have learned under the hand of Itzhak Perlman, who, for those classical neophytes out there, is the Michael Jordan of the violin.
The seats were arranged in an intimate circle, putting the musicians directly in the middle of the audience. The members of the quartet took their seats and put bows to strings. What followed was a swell of mellifluous, intense, and sweet sound that flooded over the small room, bouncing off the brick walls and straight into the core of the audience. This wasn’t the posh, impersonal space of Alice Tully Hall, where the connection with the music is overwhelmingly high-brow and inaccessible to people inexperienced with the classical style (the fact that you could basically reach out and touch a violin certainly added to the intimacy of the experience). Unlike the Metropolitan Opera, where get lost in a sea of nearly 4,000 audience members, you feel like you are having a private performance in a room that seats 150 (it’s a lot harder to fall asleep in that scenario). But what was so rich about the evening was sitting face-to-face with the musicians, watching their expressions as they looked like they were having love affairs with the notes on the page and the instruments in their hands.
As the movements shifted from one to the next over the following 45 minute-performance, I glanced around the room at my fellow audience members. There was the typical Philharmonic patron, with a New York Times tucked under his tweed, but there was also a significant amount of beanie-headed youths with plaid shirts and ironic eyewear. From one to the next each had his or her eyes closed in rhythmic meditation.
The final movement ended to a standing ovation among Brooklyn bohemians, hipsters, and the erudite alike. Casual comments flew back and forth amongst them in between applause. The musicians grabbed their instruments and walked off through the crowd to pour themselves a pint. The audience then broke to the back bar to mingle with the musicians and each other — a meeting of ages, styles, and tastes that could find a moment on a Saturday after midnight to immerse themselves in Beethoven and beer.