Classical Revolution - The Conference

My favorite question/answer phrase:"How did you meet?" "Classical Revolution." The amazing amount of friends, chamber ensembles, significant relationships, and backpacking companions that have come out of Classical Revolution is immeasurable. It just goes to show, the momentum behind this is no accident, Classical Revolution truly is a movement of like-minded amazing individuals coming together to change the system.

Finding time to write has been an excruciating challenge ever since moving to NYC, and for a conference recap I am going to cop out and rely on my colleagues for their statements:



The following comes from the State of the Revolution article published by Brett Campbell on Oregon ArtsWatch on July 6, 2013.

About nine other directors from other Classical Revolution chapters met to exchange ideas and plan the revolution’s next phase. They shared success stories and concert models, fundraising strategies and outreach endeavors and more. CRPDX board member Michael Hsu, a composer and violinist, and executive director Christopher Corbell, a composer and multi-instrumentalist (as well as occasional electric-guitar thrashing Mozart impersonator) told ArtsWatch what they saw at the revolution.

American Idol Model?

Hsu said the conference gave him a national perspective on Portland’s revolution, which is distinguished from the others by, among other things, its theme events (like Decomposing Composers on Halloween and Bach-sing Day after Christmas) and Classical Jam sessions rather than prepared performances.

Portland has recently added contemporary music to its menu, which could turn into a transformative development in contemporary music, yoking the organization’s democratizing of classical music to the creative element of new music, which not only gives composers an affordable way of getting their music performed much more frequently than before, but also connects CR’s younger, broader audiences to contemporary music, a nexus that could benefit both listeners (who gain access to the refreshing relevance of contemporary composition) and composers (who can reach a broad audience of general music lovers, not just the relatively narrow niche of classical music geeks, new music enthusiasts, and academics who generally populate new music concerts). It also prevents Classical Revolution from suffering the same museum mentality that’s slowly draining classical music of listeners and contemporary relevance. CRPDX also sponsors a composition competition in which composers write new works for string quartet.

But Portland’s isn’t the only chapter to embrace new music. “Phoenix has an interesting take on the competition contest,” Hsu explains. “They model after American Idol. They call it Comp Comp.” Rather than making every composer write a string quartet, as CRPDX does now, composers draw five names of willing instrumentalists out of a hat, and can throw out one of the names – producing a random instrumental combo for they have four weeks to write music. At the contest itself, each finalist’s work is played twice before a panel of judges sitting at the front of the stage, while the Classical Revolution president acts as MC/translator between performers, judges, and audience. The panel can criticize or offer advice to the performers, and at the end, the audience and judges vote, and the winners get to have their pieces performed by Classical Revolution that season.

The chapters in Phoenix and Chicago have also innovated in audience outreach efforts that Portland can learn from, including instrumental petting zoos, incorporating food trucks at outdoor events, and so on. And Chicago’s chapter brought musicians from Tunisia and performed with them in an east meets west concert.

The various chapters – nearing 40, including branches in Europe – are also organized in different ways, Hsu said. Portland and Chicago Classical Revolution are nonprofit organizations that hold periodic fundraisers and do public outreach as part of the nonprofit mission. Phoenix’s group, on the other hand, is a for-profit entity supported by a Tempe museum. “They’re in a sense freer by not having to worry about the bottom line, but at the same time, they’re tied to the history museum’s mission,” Hsu explained.

Which model is better? As with any adaptive response, it depends on local circumstances. “We agreed each chapter has its own model that’s going to work differently because of the different local culture and arts organizations in each particular city,” Hsu said. “That’s why we’re moving toward an open forum model, rather than dictating that ‘Classical Revolution should look like this everywhere.’”

Open Source

Hsu was referring to another hot topic on the conference agenda. Although groups at Classical Revolution’s stage of development often move toward uniformity, hierarchy, maybe even establishing a governing body, the directors seem to be embracing Corbell’s proposal to create an open source platform, hosted at, that will allow the various chapters to share arrangements, fundraising and promotional strategies, concert ideas and more on an ongoing basis, not just at these annual meetings.

“The second Classical Revolution conference delivered the biggest thing on my wish-list,” Corbell says. “I’m really happy that we were able to move away from insular, private communication and organizing toward a very transparent, open-source ‘bazaar’ model. We are in the early days of a soft launch of a website where the conference attendees will be trying out online boards, catching any configuration bugs and starting a few early discussions. Once the beta period is over, the site will be opened up to anyone who wants to collaborate and contribute to the movement–any individual or ensemble or organization.”

Corbell’s effort reflects how Classical Revolution suits the 21st century much better than many of its classical music predecessors. In a paper presented at an April conference at Lewis & Clark College convened by musicology professor (and one-time Portland rock musician) Marianna Richey, Stanford University’s Nate Sloan noted that “Classical Revolution is redrawing a centuries-old map of the musical city. Rather than classical music emanating from one sole beacon, the concert hall, a decentralized, rhizomic network of “serious sound” emerges throughout the city.” Sloan pointed out how old-line institutions like the symphony and opera tend to resemble mid-century Detrois’ top-down Industrial Age model, while Classical Revolution, born in San Francisco, reflects a more decentralized, Silicon Valley perspective.

This “let a thousand flowers bloom’ philosophy,” however, doesn’t mean that there’s no room for cooperation among chapters. The directors discussed the notion of Classical Revolutionaries touring to various other chapters’ cities, and possibly taking the Composers Competition national – with winners from different cities competing against each other and the winning entry getting played at the national conference.

Hsu came away with an encouraging impression of the state of the revolution. ”It’s very alive and growing very fast,” Hsu says. “A lot of these chapters just started in the last year or two and they’re already building a huge following and showing a huge commitment to it. It was so inspiring to see so many people who are just scraping by as musicians still dedicating their lives to bringing classical music to the community.”