On any given Friday night, hordes of Richmond locals craving live music are rocking out to bands and moving to beats spun by locals DJs, until late, late at night — it’s pretty rare, though, to walk into Richmond bar or club and see a full orchestra on stage.
The growing classical music scene in Richmond, however, is here to change that.
“We play the same music we would play in a formal concert hall, just in a different environment,” said Scott Dodson, Director of Patron Advancement at the Richmond Symphony. “It’s more casual, and people can talk and have a beer — although they can do that in our concert hall as well.”
The Richmond Symphony has begun a new program that encourages the integration of Richmond’s music scene by working with local bands to provide unique performances for locals.
On Friday, the symphony is teaming up with local artists like Matthew E. White, Tim Barry and Bio Ritmo performing together in an event called RVA Live! At the Carpenter Theatre.
Classical Revolution RVA, a Richmond-based collective of musicians, has a similar mission statement.
“We want to integrate classical music into Richmond’s vibrant music and art scene by taking this universal art form out of its glass case, and into Richmond’s bars, restaurants, galleries and cafes,” Ellen Cockerham Riccio, the Executive Director of Classical Revolution RVA, said.
The group organizes monthly performances called Classical Incarnations, which are essentially music variety shows at different venues in Richmond.
“These are venues where Richmonders would already hear live music, usually live bands,” Riccio said. “We perform in those same spaces, where people already feel comfortable. Every five or 10 minutes, a new group will take the stage.
We find that that holds people’s attention very well. It’s very informal, so I think people like that.
When we started, there was a lot of excitement — like, what, hearing a string quartet in a bar? Within a few months, all of our events were packed.”
The next Classical Incarnations is on Oct. 1 at 8 pm, at The Hof in Scott’s Addition. It is free and open to all ages. The Richmond Symphony has also furthered its efforts to interact with the community, with its Big Tent Initiative.
“We have this big, mobile performance space, and you can fit an entire orchestra and chorus under it,” Dodson said. “We take that around Richmond, and around to different counties. We try to perform really great music, and break down barriers, creating some kind of impact on the communities where we perform.”
Yet Dodson emphasized the frequent difficulties in breaking stereotypes when it comes to classical music.
“There’s no denying that a traditional orchestra audience tends to be older and of a certain demographic,” he said. “Still, we see a lot of different people coming to our concerts. There is a traditional feeling that orchestral music is meant to be for people wearing tuxedos, going to concert halls in the evening.”
But Dodson said that is just a perception.
“When you think about music 200 years ago, classical music as we know it now was being played in music halls as much as concert halls.”
Indeed, classical music has a long history and an important legacy. According to Dodson, much of the music we hear today is derived from music made hundreds of years ago. The Richmond Symphony was founded 60 years ago, and has been providing Richmond with music since.
Music, however, is not just about the performance — it is also about the connections it creates. Johnnia Stengall, the Assistant Director of Education and Community Engagement, first started playing the viola when she was just ten years old, and she is passionate about working with children and imparting her love of music.
Before her time in Richmond, Stengall worked with the Baltimore Symphony’s youth orchestra.
“I worked at the Peabody Conservatory, and there were a bunch of kids that would come on the bus from West Baltimore, the rougher part of town, where the riots happened a few years ago,” she said. “Then you’d have the kids from the suburbs, who got dropped off by their parents in Escalades.
And you’d see them in rehearsal talking together about music and concerts. They were so different, and they probably would never have met otherwise. But here, they spoke the same language. I wanted to do that in Richmond, too.”
When asked why classical music is important, both groups were quick to answer: classical music has a special place in Richmond’s music scene, and is capable of moving and inspiring many. It is clear that those who work with the symphony and Classical Revolution RVA are ardently devoted to their work and their music.
“It’s a completely unique experience,” Dodson said. “There’s nothing that I can think of that creates the same sort of sound as an orchestral performance. There’s no other musical experience that resonates in the same way. You get those chills on the back of your neck, and I can’t explain what that means. In that moment, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. “
Coccio also emphasized the uniqueness of the classical genre.
“All music is really important for us, especially classical music, because it reminds us that we’re more than our words and our thoughts,” she said. “ It expresses what words can’t, and I feel that classical music in particular really captures the moodiness of humanity. You can go from feeling upbeat to heartbroken to angry to having an epiphany — and I think that really describes us as humans.”