Two Inquirer critics assess a night of Bach and beer at Dock Street Brewery

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Steuart Pincombe, devoted to presenting classical works in unique venues, played baroque cello at Dock Street Brewery.

S teuart and Michelle Pincombe are spending a year living in a trailer, traveling through the United States and Canada, spreading the word about the power classical music can have in surprising places.

Tuesday night the couple stopped at Dock Street Brewery at 50th and Baltimore Streets, where Steuart played Baroque cello while an attentive standing-room-only crowd quenched its thirst for Bach and beer chosen to somehow match each other. Our critics weigh in on the evening.

Peter Dobrin: I'm very much taken with the concept of getting classical music out of the concert hall and into a more social context whenever possible. I kept thinking of how our late art critic, Ed Sozanski, used to refer to museums - as the venue of last resort. But the Baroque cello, with its sheep and cow gut strings, is a pretty quiet instrument. Did it come across for you? And was this your first non-vegan cello experience?

Samantha Melamed: It was my first, ahem, visceral cello experience. I can't say that I caught every note and nuance, given the acoustics of the space and the clattering of beer glasses and chatter from the bar. But somehow it worked for me: Taking this 18th-century music out of a sterile environment and into the familiar realm of my neighborhood bar made it feel fresh and timely.

I also enjoyed the attempt to pair each piece with one of Dock Street's beers - although I'm not sure about the logic behind matching a "crushable" (according to the tasting notes) pale ale to the first of Bach's cello suites. But, given that this is a brewery that once infused a golden saison with the sounds of Wu Tang Clan, I guess logic isn't relevant. Did the beer improve the music for you?

Dobrin: I'm not experienced in the beer arts. And there's no way I could have handled a pint with each of the three suites he played. But I admit to feeling a certain glow a little while into it - the rosy vernal sky and #34 trolley passing by in the window behind him, his lean and dancerly way with these pieces. Art informed the city experience, and the cityscape reflected back on to the art. Both seemed changed.

Steuart Pincombe is a gorgeous player: perfect intonation, imaginative phrasing, no vibrato of course, and a very light (dare we say pale-ale?) sound. And the crowd - what was it, maybe 100 people? - was really focused. I couldn't help thinking that part of his charisma lay in the unusual degree of freedom in his tempos. Many of the people there didn't show up to hear him specifically, but just to eat and drink. For the most part, people were rather captivated by this quiet 265-year-old instrument in the corner. What do you think accounted for that? Was it the novelty of it? The sense that Bach, still, on some primordial level, sounds like the source of all music?

Melamed: Maybe it's that this music is deeply familiar, but many of us haven't really listened to it other than as the backdrop to, say, an American Express commercial. It's compelling, once you have the chance to focus on it in more than 30-second increments. And even those of us who are casual listeners still can notice and appreciate virtuosity. Plus, there's the Shakespeare-in-the-park effect: People recognize that classics endure for a reason, and gravitate to them when they're made accessible.

Pincombe mentioned that Bach was once paid for a commission in, among other things, "30 pails of beer, beverage-tax free." So maybe he would have enjoyed the performance as well.

Do you think maybe this was Bach as it was meant to be heard?


Additional information about Steuart and Michelle Pincombe's year-long project taking classical on the road: www.musicinfamiliarspaces.com.