David C. Barnett
Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog made its debut to a sellout crowd at the Happy Dog in Cleveland last June.
Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog made its debut to a sellout crowd at the Happy Dog in Cleveland last June. David C. Barnett
You ever hear the one about the cellist who walked into a bar? Really, this is no joke: He and several colleagues from the Cleveland Orchestra have been playing pickup gigs at a local watering hole, providing a cultural mash-up of Beethoven and beer. It's standing room only at the Happy Dog, a neighborhood bar on Cleveland's near-west side, and owner Sean Watterson is pumped — in his own way.
"This is as packed as any other night that we've got. People want to see Cleveland Orchestra members up onstage," he says. "The turnout's been incredible."
A half-dozen musicians mount a stage along the front wall, pick up their instruments and launch into their set. They call themselves Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog — an allusion to the '80s new-wave band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Watterson says he prides himself on the diversity of the acts that play his bar, everything from indie rock to classic country to polka.
"And that's a big hit," he says. "People love coming out for polka — it's Cleveland."
But he'd never considered Cleveland's other well-known music until a chance conversation at a party with the orchestra's principal flutist, Josh Smith.
"And he mentioned that he hosts music almost every night, lots of different kinds," Smith says. "So I asked him if he'd tried classical, and he said no. And I asked him if he was willing, and he said sure."
Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog made its debut to a sellout crowd last June, and Smith says he has found it to be a refreshing contrast to the strict discipline of his regular gig.
"We're so used to being — and necessarily so — completely worried, or completely honed in to infinitesimally small details, constantly," Smith says. "And to sort of get into a situation where you just sort of let it all hang out and go for it is fun. And I think people enjoy seeing us having fun."
Taking classical music out of the concert hall is nothing new. The group Tashi played non-concert venues back in the 1970s. Famed cellist Matt Haimovitz has taken his 300-year-old instrument into places ranging from coffeehouses to punk clubs. In a 2007 interview, Haimovitz said that musical experience was a rebirth for him.
"It was kind of going back to when I first started to play the instrument for my first audiences," he said. "The excitement, the electricity of that, it just took me to that time. Since then, that part of my life has taken on a life of its own."
A New Crowd
But Cleveland Orchestra associate concertmaster Amy Lee is still a little uncomfortable with the idea of playing for a noisy crowd that isn't always paying attention.
"I have to say, sometimes it's hard to hear each other," Lee says. "It's not the ideal, intimate chamber-music setting, but this is a whole different thing we're trying out. It's all give and take."
Happy Dog regular Antoine Henderson nurses a beer as he takes it all in from a nearby bar stool. The 30-year-old splits his time between playing in rock bands and singing in choral groups, and he says it's good to get this music out of the sometimes stuffy confines of Severance Hall.
"What I think is cool about it is, people that normally wouldn't get to go to Severance Hall get exposed to a little tiny bit of classical music, and people who wouldn't normally come here get to, like, know this bar, so it's mutually beneficial to both parties," Henderson says.
One of flutist Josh Smith's fondest memories of his gig last June at the Happy Dog came about halfway through the second set.
"There were a couple of 20-year-olds with tattoos waving lighters and saying, 'Beethoven!' And I thought that was great," Smith says. "That sort of did the whole thing for me."
At the Happy Dog, at least, Beethoven has rolled over.