The sidewalk outside An Beal Bocht Café was illuminated by Christmas lights galore, yet was empty and cold. The café’s performance space, however, was occupied by the rehearsing sopranos and cellists, violinists and narrators of Classical Café, a Riverdale-based chamber music group, readying their performance of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
Narrator Joan Lunoe stood in the aisle facing the stage, observing the musicians and the major members of Classical Café — Marc Molomot, Ilana Davidson and Jing Li, working out a few last kinks in a piece — and the rather cramped seating on stage, an image that, seven years ago, was just a possibility in the eyes of Classical Café’s founders.
“Jing and I were at An Beal during a snowstorm in 2012,” Davidson said. “We listened to the Irish music, but Jing and I thought, ‘Hey, we should bring more classical music to the area, and make it accessible.’”
From there, the group grew to accommodate those who not only had the chops, but also a true passion for the future of classical music. Molomot, the newest member of the group who joined in 2016 is now the co-artistic director.
“I just stumbled into it,” Molomot said. “I’m glad to be part of it. We all have a strong desire for chamber music, and bringing it to people.”
Just as practice wound down, the doors between the bar and the performance space opened, and audience members shuffled in. Before long, the space was sold out.
All was chatter and tension, awaiting the arrival of a yuletide performance that could keep the heart warm through winter. If any prose piece could be appreciated on a quiet mid-December evening, it was Thomas’ piece, the loose tale of a man’s idyllic Christmas memories.
“This is our seventh year doing this,” Li said. “It’s the backbone of the production, though it changes slightly each year, like who exactly we perform and how we do it.”
That night’s story was interwoven with pieces by Giovanni Palestrina, Vivaldi, Henri Vieuxtemps, and J.S. Bach, including some surprise theatrics in-between — a particularly novel idea by Lunoe.
“I was an audiobook narrator for the New York Public Library,” Lunoe said. “It’s a type of theatre that appeals to me. This story lives best as a story. When you break it down into say a musical or a play or a film, you may lose too much.”
Lunoe approached the stage from the back of the room, announcing the crisp and chilled tale. She unfurled the story, and at the mention of Welsh cats, sopranos Davidson and Molomot rose from their seats and sang in meows. Gone with the Latin, gone with German — gone with the human tongue. Instead the song of cats and laughter filled the room.
In the Welsh story, and in An Beal Bocht, the Celtic lands seemed overrun by wild animals.
“We adapted the poem in a different manner,” Davidson said. “Each piece transitions from one section of the poem to the other. We thought we’d add some acting this year as well.”
Indeed, as characters in the poem mention King Wenceslas, the classic yuletide original was sung, blended with Lunoe’s narration.
Throughout the performance, a different musical genre seemed abundantly present without a single electric cord or loudspeaker in sight, something Molomot has always considered to be part of classical music.
“There’s something rock ‘n’ roll in Baroque music,” Molomot said. “Ilana and I refer to the orchestra as ‘The Band.’ It has improvisation, it’s musician-led, it’s unique.”
Performing a work of literature as a chamber piece is something the group hopes to continue. They began outlining a performance of love poems by Proust, “In Love’s Honor,” set for Valentine’s Day.
“We believe in giving the spoken word a place of honor in our programming, just like we did this evening,” Molomot said. “The idea is to take this beautiful work by Brahms with several different sections, and we’re going to weave the text of Proust throughout this work.”
Naturally, “In Love’s Honor” will premiere at An Beal Bocht.
With Thomas’ story finished, the evening ended with a performance of “Silent Night,” earning a bit of accompaniment from the audience.
“It was so sweet,” Davidson said. “It made me really happy. They seemed so engaged with the work.”
As audience members shook hands with performers and stepped into the bar for a quick drink before returning home, Classical Café’s main ethos seemed to glow as bright as the Christmas bulbs outside.
“We’re friends coming together to produce things that are meaningful,” Lunoe said. “We’re a team, and we hope the audience felt that energy.”