The four musicians sat in the center of the room, forming a tight semicircle. They carefully tuned their strings, bows moving swiftly across instruments one fluid motion at a time. As they prepared to play, the guests filed into the space, filling the rows of seats. But as the artists began to play their first notes from a movement by Bach, there were no stage lights beaming down on them or a conductor at the helm. Instead, they played in a small, carved-out space in the middle of Preyer Brewing in downtown Greensboro under dark, wood-paneled ceilings, right next to the bar.
“This is a unique format for us,” explained Daniel Crupi, the chief operating officer at the Greensboro Symphony, and the one who addressed the crowd. “This is meant to be casual; this is meant to be fun.”
An audience of about 100 had gathered on a Sunday evening in late September to experience the inaugural HOPS series event, a collaboration between Preyer and the symphony that brought chamber music to a more casual atmosphere. The event, which cost $20 and included a ticket to the show and a complimentary beer, sold out quickly, drawing longtime patrons as well as new listeners. Preyer also released a new beer, Bachtoberfest, in conjunction with the series and as a celebration of Oktoberfest. An amber colored marzen that’s perfect for the season, it’s malty and caramel-y, with a slightly bitter finish.
As the stringed quartet played, the listeners could witness up close the artists’ facial expressions and levels of concentration in a way that would have been impossible in a traditional concert hall. The players thrust their upper bodies vigorously while keeping up with the tempo of the second piece, a tango. Audience members tapped their feet and bobbed their heads as they sipped beer and wine. Soon, one of the musicians began performing pizzicato, plucking the strings of his violin, creating a lively staccato sound that complemented the effervescence of the beverages being enjoyed.
And despite the unconventional setting for this evening of music, chamber music was made for places like this, according to Crupi.
“Chamber music, especially in the 1700s and 1800s, was a totally social experience,” Crupi said. “People would get together at each other’s houses and play.”
Kind of like an 18th Century jam session.
Richard Henry Walthew, an English composer who produced music in the 19th and 20th centuries even called the format the “music of friends.”
A brewery, in Crupi’s opinion, is the perfect place for this kind of music.
“Breweries embody a unique function in today’s world,” Crupi said. “You see people from all walks of life: millennials, older adults, families with kids, dogs. It’s a great community gathering space. One of goals of this was to try and bring new and diverse individuals into the symphony fold.”
And as the first 20-minute set came to an end and a quick intermission kicked in, the brewery was filled with the new sound of clinking glasses and conversation.
“We wanted to encourage a more social atmosphere,” Crupi said. “In a regular atmosphere, the symphony tries to play a lot of music with short intermissions, but it can be hard to sit through that hour-and-a-half long format. People are also there to see their friends and meet new people.”
To keep guests entertained, the event took place in three separate 20-minute intervals, with two 20-minute breaks in between.
A couple sitting at the bar during one of these intermissions said they had come because the event seemed interesting.
“We come to Preyer often but we’ve never been to the symphony,” admitted Molly Hilburn-Holte. “We listen to classical music but we aren’t that knowledgeable.” Her partner, Andrew Evans, said that he had even sent an email asking if there was a dress code for the event.
The woman they had just met who sat next to them at the bar, Joan Kinder, said that going to a symphony could be kind of intimidating for those that didn’t know anything about it.
“It’s kind of like church,” Kinder said. “You only go if you have a friend that’s going.”
Unlike the couple however, Kinder, who came alone, said that she listens to classical regularly and that she’ll be back for the next event in December.
“It’s a great price point and location,” Kinder said. “The pieces are accessible and it’s a fun way to enjoy beautiful live music; it’s not stuffy.”
And as the quartet kicked off a “guess that tune game,” the audience became more engaged and quickly guessed the tune as the theme song from Game of Thrones. Winter is coming after all.