Tacoma’s oldest and newest chamber music series get creative

When Svend Ronning begins the first exquisitely difficult notes of Bach’s solo violin Partita No. 3 in the Lakewold Gardens manor June 16, he won’t just be kicking off the 40th anniversary of Second City Chamber Series. He’ll be creating an experience that seems to be the future of chamber music: intimate, conversational, convivial. It’s an experience that not only Tacoma’s oldest chamber series, Second City, but also its newest, Emerald City Music, is finding the secret to success.

“We have found that people more and more are not interested in just going to a concert,” says Ronning, director of Second City for seven years. “They want it to be fun, interesting, a place to socialize … more like an event and less like a concert.”

“We want people to experience the art as though they’re part of it,” says Andrew Goldstein, director of Emerald City Music, which debuts a chamber series in Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia in September.

It’s a track many chamber music organizers have been going down for a while now. The success of efforts like Groupmuse, an online social media platform that unites patrons, hosts and musicians for house concerts, shows that 21st-century audiences want something quite different from the sit-in-your-seat, reverential silence that’s a legacy of 19th-century concert attitudes.

Second City has been evolving that way for years now. When the series began in 1977, there were just four concerts a year in the Great Hall of Annie Wright School. Over the last decade, the series has added Spotlight concerts for soloists in First Lutheran Church, a highly-successful Young Players concert, two summer concerts at Lakewold and a fundraiser house concert each year.

It’s the least conventional concerts that are the most successful, says Ronning. To bring in more crowds for the Annie Wright shows, he’s introduced a more casual feel with a bar service and easier pricing. As a recent sold-out Tacoma Symphony chamber concert at Morso Wine Bar in Gig Harbor showed, mixing good music, food, drink and socializing is a winning combination.

That’s partly what’s behind Emerald City Music. Launching this fall by Olympia-based Andrew Goldstein and Seattle-based Kristin Lee, the series combines world-class musicians with venues like Kakao Coffee in South Lake Union, which combines cafe and concert hall. Olympia concerts will use both the Minnaert Center for the Arts and The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, and in Tacoma they’ll be in Lagerquist Hall at Pacific Lutheran University — though Goldstein is looking for a Kakao-like venue for the future. He’s also encouraging the social part by putting concert-related conversation prompts (“Where is your ideal travel destination?”) on audience seats. In both series, you can chat with the musicians afterward.

Our ultimate goal is to create a place for music lovers to discuss music together.”

Andrew Goldstein, Emerald City Music

Then there’s programming. While Ronning finds that “plain vanilla” Mozart-Beethoven-Brahms shows still pull crowds, he’s always experimenting with old and new. His own solo concert plays on the symbol of the violin as both angel and devil, with works from Bach’s angelic partita to “The Devil’s Trill” by Second City founder William Doppman and a devil-inspired hardanger fiddle work from Norway. The rest of the series includes an early-music concert; piano trios by Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Tacoma-born Alexandra Bryant; a vocal program that echoes one of the very first Second City concerts; and a house concert themed around the Gustav Klimt film “Woman in Gold,” with special guest Peter Altmann, the grand-nephew of the painting’s model.

“It’s hard to predict,” Ronning says of programming. “We don’t always know what will work.”

Second City also is launching a competition for young composers, with the winning entry to go on the 2017-18 season.

Emerald City, meanwhile, gets even more inventive. The first Tacoma concert in November mixes French and English music for piano and various instruments, while the second in May 2017 goes from a Bach violin partita to Norgard’s “The Well-Tempered Percussion” and a toccata for vibraphone and marimba. There are seven Seattle concerts, five of which double in Olympia: a wind/string extravagaza from Tchaikovsky to Vivan Fung’s “Birdsong,” string quartet and sextet concerts, harpist Bridget Kibbey and a program of opera music reimagined for clarinet, pianos and more.

By the Numbers Second City: 27 artists, 10 concerts, two cities Emerald City: 45 artists, 14 concerts, three cities

But the biggest difference between Tacoma’s oldest and newest chamber series is in the audience and the marketing. Second City, like many classical groups, has a solid middle-aged audience. But Emerald City is aiming for millennials.

“We want to bring in people who love how intimate and profound this music is, but who don’t necessarily like the experience of a concert hall,” explains Goldstein, himself a millennial who only discovered classical music later in life.

To do this, Goldstein is using marketing strategies like big, atmospheric photos and Tumblr-worthy design on the website and brochure, “story notes” instead of conventional program notes and plenty of social media.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a place for music lovers to discuss music together,” he says.

Of course, there are other chamber series around Tacoma and Olympia — First Lutheran, Christ Episcopal, the Antique Sandwich Co., Classical Tuesdays, Music at St. John’s — most of which are free.

Meanwhile, Second City, which has been holding steady at a $40,000 budget for several years now, isn’t worried about newcomers.

“It’s all a part of Tacoma becoming a big city for real,” Ronning says. “The community has a choice of many things in many flavors.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Angels and Demons

Who: Svend Ronning, violin, for Second City Chamber Series

When: 7:30 p.m. June 16.

Where: Lakewold Gardens, 12317 Gravelly Lake Drive SW, Lakewood.

Tickets: $25 general; $23 senior and military; free for 18 and younger.

Information: 253-572-TUNE, scchamberseries.org.

Darkness Visible

Who: Conor Hanick and Michael Mizrahi, piano and others for Emerald City Music.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12.

Where: Lagerquist Hall, Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S., Tacoma.

Tickets: $28 general, $43 premium, $10 student.

Information: 206-250-5510, emeraldcitymusic.org.