November 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

'It's a party... and everyone's invited': DSO bassist brings classical music to the masses

Classical Revolution Detroit
Classical Revolution Detroit: DSO bassist Rick Robinson started Classical Revolution Detroit to take classical music out of the concert hall and into local bars and coffee houses where people can enjoy it "where they live."

Detroit — On a typical night at the Cadieux Café on the city's east side, people come for the Belgian-style mussels, feather bowling and live rock or jazz. But recently there's been a new addition to the menu: classical music.

If your first reaction is "well, that's a night I'll avoid going there," think again. This isn't stuffy, suit-and-tie classical music. It's Classical Revolution Detroit — a jam session for classical musicians led by Detroit Symphony Orchestra bassist Rick Robinson.

"It's a party," says Robinson, "and everyone's invited."

Robinson thinks classical musicians should reach out to younger, more urban (read that as diverse) audiences.

The Revolution started in San Francisco six years ago and has spread to more than 30 cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. Robinson had already started two classical groups, CutTime Players — a miniature orchestra of eight players — and the string sextet CutTime Simfonica to take the music out of Orchestra Hall and into the community.

So when he heard about Classical Revolution, Robinson saw it as "right up my alley." He started the Detroit chapter in 2010, playing at Detroit's Cadieux and Majestic cafes and Caribou Coffee in Royal Oak.

With the audience for classical music graying and dwindling, Robinson sees the need to make the music more inclusive. "Especially for people who walk by Orchestra Hall every day and have no interest in going inside — probably because the orchestra isn't interested in coming out to the people and meeting them halfway." He saw the need for a different approach.

Classical music, modern vibe

Robinson, 49, is used to "different." He was only the second African-American member of the DSO, and he was born and raised in Highland Park.

When I met Robinson at least 20 years ago, his friends had dubbed him "Downtown Rick Robinson" because of his live-wire, always-up-for-anything personality.

The ensuing two decades with the DSO have certainly mellowed him, and he's more likely to come off as the consummate professional than the fun-loving party guy. But a little "downtown" oozes out as he picks up the microphone between numbers to tease the other musicians and get the crowd laughing.

Typically, classical music is un-amplified, but Robinson brings a sound system to his gigs so there's a mic for his interludes as emcee. As he moves chairs and music stands, setting up for the next piece, he's also setting up the context of that piece for the audience, chatting with the musicians who are about to perform and cracking a few jokes.

"We're going to start with the music of Schubert, so I would suggest a red wine," he says into the mic. "Something a little sweet and fruity — like me."

The musicians who join Robinson are from all over the Metro Detroit area.

John Madison of Ann Arbor, where there's another Classical Revolution chapter, showed up with his viola after a paying gig. "It's like we're hanging out, and the next thing you know we're on stage playing music."

A taste of something different

As a classical revolutionary, Robinson hopes for a guerilla art effect. "What I really love is when we surprise people who happen to be at the bar and had no idea that classical music was going to be on the plate," says Robinson. "And it's always a 50-50 shot at whether they are pleasantly surprised or not."

Earl and Joyce Lardner of Harrison Township came away pleased after a recent Classical Revolution gig at the Cadieux Café. The couple had only seen one classical concert before they heard Robinson being interviewed on the radio on their way out to dinner in Mount Clemens for their weekly "date."

"We were almost to Mount Clemens. But we turned around, got on the freeway and came down here (Detroit's east side)," says Earl. "And here we are looking for something different to listen to."

The desire to make classical music more accessible extends to Robinson's own compositions, which blend familiar African-American forms like blues and gospel with classical. He calls it "new classical."

After traveling the country to test out his ideas over the past year, Robinson says he's resigning from the DSO next month to build classical audiences across the nation using his connections to Classical Revolution musicians around the United States.

He hopes to partner with orchestras and music schools to put together ensembles playing his compositions in clubs, bars, churches and schools. He sees this as a "grass-roots movement connecting the masses with classical music."

"This is the game; this is the touchdown I'm trying to score," he says. "It's to put it in front of people and have them start to understand and enjoy it — and crave it like I do."

DSO bassist Rick Robinson started Classical Revolution Detroit to take classical music out of the concert hall and into local bars and coffee houses where people can enjoy it in a relaxed atmosphere. / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
Rick Robinson composes and publishes music that infuses classical music ... (Donna Terek/The Detroit News)