The jam session has always been a defining element of jazz. A wholly informal exercise, the jam is where musicians limber up, experiment, fine-tune, or freak out. Folkies had their own jam sessions as well, and still do at places like Freight and Salvage in Berkeley; rock bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead, of course, have been devoted practitioners.
But the jam is not associated with classical music. The common assumption is that classical musicians operate in a rarefied, mathematically inclined world where everyone is rigorously trained in a highly prescribed set of standards and expectations. Yet the animating impulse behind Classical Revolution — now a global organization of 30 chapters — grew from a desire to strip the real and perceived formalities away from classical music, to free both the music and the musicians from such persistent and sometimes alienating assumptions.
Classical Revolution really just wanted to jam.
In the fall of 2006, a group of classically trained musicians began playing a weekly chamber session at the Revolution Café on 22nd Street in the Mission. Charith Premawardhana, the founder of Classical Revolution, says that he and his cohorts wanted to take the environments in which they had met and played — basements and living rooms, mostly — and transfer that vibe to a café setting. In the beginning, he says, "it was mostly so that we could have a fun place to play music. But it's served a lot of different purposes since then. It creates a space for chamber music that's more casual and fun. People can show up and dress how they want, and it doesn't cost a lot of money."
It's not just about informality, though. Premawardhana says, "For us, this places more emphasis on the music itself, instead of everything around it."
Now registered as a nonprofit organization, Classical Revolution is dedicated to taking classical and chamber music out of concert and recital halls and into coffeehouses, galleries, and other nontraditional venues. In just under six years, the organization has been responsible for nearly 800 performances.
"The elements of the organization itself have come together as needed," says Premawardhana. "Everything has come in as an offer — people wanting to help out, or people hiring us to play."
This month it celebrates a new milestone: the first Classical Revolution Music Festival, featuring two dozen performances by acts in various musical genres, at venues all over the Bay Area. Things kick off with a free concert at the de Young Museum on Friday, Sept. 7. The festival culminates in a big, multi-act show at Great American Music Hall on Sept. 27 featuring the Classical Revolution Orchestra, Third Eye Blind, "string metal" combo Judgement Day, orchestral pop composer Jherek Bischoff, the Musical Art Quartet (in which Premawardhana himself plays viola), and others.
That Classical Revolution was born in San Francisco will come as no surprise to those familiar with the city's history of cultivating significant contributors to the genre. Some of the 20th century's most esteemed experimental composers hail from Northern California: Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and Terry Riley. The San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet is known for doing nothing but pushing boundaries. Even the relatively staid format of the symphony orchestra has become somewhat elastic here; the San Francisco Symphony, under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, has developed a reputation for programming occasional obscurities as well as commissioning a wide range of new work.
One of Classical Revolution's innovations is its "open source" organizational model along the lines of 826 Valencia, whereby classical musicians from other cities and other countries have been inspired to open their own chapters. This has sped its growth, resulting in high demand for performances and new opportunities for classical musicians who may not have the luxury of membership in a large symphony orchestra.
"The desire to make it an open and inclusive experience led to musicians from out of town coming to sit in," Premawardhana says. "They wanted to do the same thing where they lived — in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or Amsterdam. The desire to keep it open and inclusive dictated allowing people to use the name and take the idea to these different cities."
Classical Revolution has no paid staff, and 90 percent of its revenue goes to its musicians. September's festival will be funded, in part, by Indiegogo and KickStarter campaigns. "We're hoping to raise enough for the entire festival beforehand, so that other revenue that comes in can be used for our programs for the rest of the year," Premawardhana explains.
Those programs include a burgeoning education effort that Premawardhana says is a key component of the organization's future. "There's so little music education happening in public schools these days," he says. "We want to bring musicians to play at middle schools and high schools in San Francisco, to engage kids and at least expose them to live music." The organization has done some in-school programs and is in residence at the San Jose Youth Orchestra. Given the positive reception Classical Revolution has received so far, Premawardhana says the organization will increasingly focus on developing education programs.
Classical Revolution's growth has been aided not only by demand and its goal of accessibility, but by scores of San Francisco musicians — and not just those trained on the cello or bassoon. The organization has found itself at the heart of an enthusiastic multi-genre music scene energized by Classical Revolution's ideals and artistic openness.
The festival and the benefit show on Sept. 27 will highlight the fact that rock, classical, Latin, and pop musicians are all part of the same large circle of colleagues. Partnering with non-classical musicians emphasizes the cross-fertilization that has long existed among musicians, but is seen less often among audiences.
"My intention is to draw a wide-ranging audience," Premawardhana says. "When I moved to San Francisco, I noticed a lot of diversity in terms of the different [music] scenes, and everything was strong, high-quality stuff. There are a lot of good musicians in the city. But going to shows, I noticed that the scenes were very segregated. The punk crowd goes to punk shows. The jazz crowd goes to jazz shows. But if you do a show with different kinds of music, you get a more diverse audience in the same venue. For me, it doesn't matter what kind of music it is, as long as good musicians are playing it."