Imagine going down to your favorite bar, and instead of a DJ or jukebox, there’s a classical string quartet. Or going to a whiskey tasting at that distillery everyone raves about and finding a small ensemble echoing through the barrelhouse.

Or chomping down on a frank at the local hot dog shop, when you hear …

And so on. To find those coveted, elusive new listeners, classical ensembles in Pittsburgh seem willing to go anywhere — even leaving the concert hall behind entirely.

“Music for the people, as it was really meant to be,” says Kristen Linfante, executive director of Chamber Music Pittsburgh, of their “Pittsburgh Performs” series.

“I think back to Bach, for example. In the 1700s, he was playing music in bars and coffee shops. It was something that happened within the community — it wasn’t only for the elite. Unfortunately, over time, music — especially classical music — has been so highly regarded, that it was put onto this pedestal, and locked in this box which is the concert hall.”

Of course, you don’t really need pearls or a top hat to go to the symphony. Still, the reputation lingers. Not lot of restaurants do the whole fancy white-tablecloth, dress-code-enforced thing anymore, either. Formality seems to be in terminal decline just about everywhere.

To break free of those perceptions, it helps to meet your audience halfway.

Old instruments, new music

Of course, it’s an even bigger challenge when the music isn’t familiar to a wide audience. If you’re going beyond the usual canon of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, et cetera, you need an audience’s trust.

One ensemble that’s trying a lot of new things at once is NAT 28. Their mission is to showcase contemporary music by living composers and help establish Pittsburgh “as an internationally competitive hub for new art.”

“We’re playing music you’ve probably never heard before,” says NAT 28 founder Zoe Sorrell. “That can be frightening and alienating, as well as exciting. One of the unique challenges is that you’re not having to cater to one city, but 25 very diverse neighborhoods. If you’re giving a program in Shadyside, Lawrenceville or the West End, those are people who have diverse experiences. We find ourselves almost starting over from scratch for every performance based on where it is in the city of Pittsburgh.”

She saw the chance to create something very different.

“I’ve always wanted to start an ensemble like this, that gives the musicians control of what they play, how they play it, who we play with, where we play, how it’s disseminated, et cetera. It’s pretty rare.”

The 25-year-old flautist just finished her Master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon. Though she has lived all over, Pittsburgh seemed different right away.

“Within a couple of months, I knew this was the place for an organization like this,” says Sorrell. “There’s such a strong sense of identity, and desire to start your own [groups].

“We want to latch onto that sense of identity, and be an organization that the city is proud of. We want to represent Pittsburgh.” Acknowledging the “n’at” in their name, which stands for ‘New Arts Team,” Sorrell also says, “We talked about bridges a lot — bridging music to the other art forms. Bridging the arts and service. Bridges from performer to listener.”

Though there’s not really a typical NAT 28 performance, a recent concert at the Panther Hollow Watershed in Schenley Park for International Make Music Day accomplished a lot of the group’s goals.

At that event, NAT 28 was joined by a formidable array of Pittsburgh ensembles: Brass Roots, Kamratōn, Trillium Ensemble, Kassia Ensemble, Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music. They performed works by contemporary or near-contemporary composers: Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Pauline Oliveros’ The Well and the Gentle, Terry Riley’s In C — all vigorously original, foundational texts for contemporary classical music, and experimentation in rock, electronic and film music as well.

“Our audiences tend to be much younger than an orchestra audience,” says Sorrell. “We haven’t invested much of our time in getting the [Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra] audience. We’re getting people interested in contemporary art in all its forms.”

If there are gaps between audiences, real or potential, NAT 28 hopes to fill them.

“Last season we opened with a concert called ‘Imaginary Dances,’” says Sorrell. “Every piece was based on a movement tradition from somewhere in the world. It’s music inspired by dance and movement.”

In April, Chamber Music Pittsburgh’s “Pittsburgh Performs” series paired NAT 28 with Conflict Kitchen, combining composers and food from nations that have been in conflict with the United States.

“Music and culinary arts are a way to deal with identity politics and diversity of cultures,” says Sorrell. “It was around the time the ‘travel ban’ was in heated discussion.”

“Each of NAT 28’s concerts raises questions of some kind,” says Sorrell. “Next season is opening with an entire program of songs, folk songs, stories. We’re asking a lot of questions about how the human voice relates to tradition and record-keeping, the human voice and the tradition of oral storytelling.”

Seeking new venues

“The Kelly Strayhorn, Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, the churches in the city, art galleries and bookstores — anywhere we’ll catch someone who comes in to browse,” says Sorrell, regarding efforts to branch out. “We want to get people who aren’t going to make it down to Heinz Hall.”

Chamber Music Pittsburgh’s “Pittsburgh Performs” series has taken the music past the edges of the map, when it comes to venues.

“Places like the gym at the Ace Hotel, and BOOM Concepts, an artists’ space in Garfield,” says Linfante. “The Cloak Room at Livermore in East Liberty, Franktuary (the hot dog shop), the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, the Pittsburgh Winery. We’re really trying to get all around town, into the community, presenting the music without rules.”

“Our last one was ‘Bachboombox,’ for example,” says Linfante. “It was a very cool combination of artists, building on a Bach cello suite, that involved hip-hop, soul and every genre you could possibly imagine.”

Their shows typically sell out, but they try to keep a few tickets for the door. Tickets are pay-what-you-can.

“It’s to remove any possible barrier that keeps people from feeling like they belong,” says Linfante.

If you’d expect anyone in town to stick to tradition, it would be the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO), a giant among world symphonies.

But they, too, are actively exploring new approaches.

Their large-scale “FUSE” concerts combined the classical canon with, well, other very different things. Tchaikovsky and the music of Drake, for instance, or Brahms and Radiohead. Under the direction of the young Steve Hackman, it was an attempt to court younger audiences. Though several concerts sold-out, and the buzz was significant, the PSO chose not to continue the series, citing the cost.

“Play N’at” series by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of PSO.
“Play N’at” series by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of PSO.

PSO is continuing their small-scale, informal “Play N’at” concerts at venues like Pittsburgh Winery, Wigle Whiskey and Franktuary. The roster of musicians changes for each event. They get to pick the music, which can range from Bach and Mozart to living composers. Usually, they go with shorter pieces than they would play at Heinz Hall.

The idea came out of a “Community Relevance Project” the PSO conducted in 2013-14.

“The community told us they wanted to meet the PSO musicians, learn about the music and musicians in more informal settings throughout Pittsburgh, and interact with the musicians before and after performances,” explains Gloria Mou, director of community engagement programs for the PSO.

A future for classical

For small ensembles like NAT 28, do-it-yourself isn’t just an attitude, it’s an economic necessity.

“We’ve created an organization where every musician is not only performing, but has an administrative role,” explains Sorrell. “I play flute and do the artistic direction. Our pianist is a music director. Our guitarist does PR and marketing.”

They also want to play music for and with children.

“Getting contemporary music into schools is a goal,” says Sorrell. “When you work with little kids — which we’ve done some of — little kids find it so much less frightening than older people, who have already figured out what they think they like. New music rewards a lot of creativity and bravery and openness, and kids have a lot of that.”

“Open scores that don’t have notes on the page, or are partially improvisatory — they’re drawn to it. If we can foster appreciation, that’s how we enter [new music into] the canon. Ultimately, our goal is to champion the music we believe should representing the 21st century going forward in history. And to make sure that that’s what people are hearing.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.