The Parnassus Project Blends Chamber Music With a Coffeehouse Vibe
The Parnassus Project presents a free concert of chamber music at the Tully’s Coffee Flagship Store in downtown Seattle on Saturday, June 23 from 5-7pm. More details are available on the Parnassus Project website.
Next time you walk into your neighborhood cafe, don’t be surprised if there’s a string quartet nestled among patrons sipping their lattes and working on their MacBooks. Those musicians bringing you a bit of Brahms with your coffee are members of the Parnassus Project, a grassroots chamber music collective that’s introducing classical music to cafes, pubs, and community spaces throughout the Seattle area.
In recent months, members of the Parnassus Project have hosted chamber music concerts at a diverse variety of local venues, including The Pink Door, Zoka Cafe, and Cafe Cesura. Their next stop is the Tully’s Coffee Flagship Store in downtown Seattle, where they will present a free program of chamber music this Saturday evening. The performance will feature a wide range of instruments, including piano, violin, viola, cello, flute, horn, and harp.
Founded by two University of Washington graduates, harpist Ruth Mar and pianist Brooks Tran, the project gets its name from Parnassus, a campus coffee shop that’s a popular hangout among UW music students. During their time as students at the UW, both Mar and Tran toyed with the idea of channeling their love of chamber music into a community-oriented concert series. When they were introduced by their teacher and mentor Heidi Lehwalder, they decided to collaborate.
“Ruth and I both wanted to start a chamber music series that would appeal to newer, wider audiences,” says Tran. “We both love the unique vibe of chamber music — the unique bond between players as well as audiences, the collective excitement and energy, the camaraderie, the repertoire. We thought of how much the chamber music and classical music scene as a whole would grow and flourish if more people experienced this.”
Seattle’s long and rich tradition of chamber music means there’s no shortage of captive audiences. Now in its thirtieth year, the Seattle Chamber Music Society brings world-class artists to local stages for their summer and winter festivals. The UW World Series’ International Chamber Music Series presents some of the biggest names in chamber music, including the Emerson String Quartet, Eroica Trio, and Juilliard String Quartet. At Town Hall Seattle, cellist Joshua Roman’s popular TownMusic series treats audiences to chamber music performances by rising stars and emerging ensembles.
Tran and Mar recognize chamber music’s appeal to both seasoned concertgoers and new listeners. “Audiences love chamber music,” says Mar. “They like witnessing the ‘conversation’ and energy among musicians and hearing the combinations of different instruments. When my non-musician friends have attended recitals with a chamber music element, they’ve often commented on how cool those pieces are, and how the music kept their attention because it was so interesting to watch.”
After gathering a group of like-minded colleagues, Mar and Tran began brainstorming ways to reach out to new audiences, planning concerts that would be affordable, accessible, and fun without compromising the music. “For Seattle, coffeehouses and cafes as venues just seemed logical,” says Mar. “That’s where my friends and I go to hang out. The live music coffeehouse concept has been gaining in popularity in Seattle, so a lot of local spots already had a music slot built into their weekly schedules.”
Since their first coffeehouse concert in late 2011, Tran and Mar have presented a Parnassus Project performance nearly every month. Some concerts lean towards the traditional chamber music format, like the group’s “Cafe Music” recital at the Kirkland Women’s Club. Others are spontaneous affairs held at a local Starbucks. “The choice of venue has a huge impact on the music-making experience.” says Tran. “Playing at cafes and lounges is an entirely different experience than playing in a concert hall, and we’ve had a lot of fun adjusting to our surroundings.”
Mar concurs. “It’s definitely much more of a relaxed atmosphere, which has its pros and cons. As a performer, you do have to get used to noise in the background — people talking, espresso machines whirring, and so on. And the setup changes from venue to venue, so you learn to be flexible with the space you have.”
Both Tran and Mar agree that the spontaneous, unexpected element of a Parnassus Project performance is particularly fun and gratifying. “While we do have quite a few people who come specifically to see us perform, we get a bit of walk-in traffic as well,” says Mar. “I love seeing people peer in the window of a place, do a double-take, and then walk in. You can’t get that in a regular concert hall situation.”
Mar finds that the intimate, communal setting increases audience engagement. “There are the moments when people suddenly get quiet and you can tell you’ve caught their ear. They aren’t being quiet because they have to — they realize something special is going on, and they want to listen. As a musician, that’s extremely rewarding. Sometimes we get spontaneous applause in the middle of a performance. And that is completely fine!”
True to its community-oriented focus, the Parnassus Project provides valuable performance opportunities for young professional musicians at the start of their careers. “Many of my colleagues love chamber music and want to do more of it,” Mar explains. “When you’re in school, you get lots of chances to play chamber music for student recitals and class requirements. But post-graduation, unless you’re in a pre-formed ensemble, chamber music gigs don’t come up as often as, say, orchestra gigs. Many of us simply don’t have the time or money to make chamber music concerts happen regularly (on our own).”
To Mar and Tran, the Parnassus Project is part of a greater effort among musicians to extend the reach of classical music beyond the traditional concert hall setting. They see collaboration as one of the keys to success in this area. Members of the Parnassus Project have teamed up for performances with the Seattle chapter of Classical Revolution, another group devoted to bringing chamber music to local cafes and bars.
“I’m already seeing classical musicians making the effort to bring their music to new audiences in unique ways, and I hope that continues.” says Mar. “I’d love to see more collaboration among the small arts groups here in Seattle. There is a lot of artistic talent in this area; and I think if different groups combined forces we’d could create some amazing art.”
Mar, Tran, and the other musicians of the Parnassus Project have a busy summer ahead. Next month, they’ll make their first art gallery appearance at Pioneer Square’s Design Commission Gallery. In August, they’ll bring chamber music to the Eastside with a performance at Kirkland Summerfest.
The flexible nature of Parnassus Project performances allows Mar and Tran to get creative when it comes to potential venues for future concerts. In the running are Seattle landmarks like Pike Place Market and King Street Station. They’ve also considered more unusual, unexpected spaces. Think the light rail, or an Apple store. Says Tran, “I’d love to play at some really flashy techno club with near-seizure-inducing lights and the whole bit!”