Certainly, at the Classical Underground concerts, art and music seem vital indeed. Not only for the audience, but for the players. The August concert included an austere, resonant Bach Cello Suite, a Prokofiev piano sonata rendered with sterling clarity by a pianist raising money for her CD release, and several melodic pieces by lesser-known composers. Afterward, many of the musicians came back and played; the cellist improvised on Bach. (Some nights, these after parties go until dawn.)
The series started as the Chamber Music at the Studio Series in December 2007. "This was intended as a get-together for friends -- a party," says Serge Oskotsky, a St. Petersburg-born cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the loft's earliest performers. That first session involved three straight hours of cello duets without pausing for breath. "We were so taken by music making on the spot," he says, "people were too polite to tell us to stop."
"They survived," says Maksim Velichkin, who played the other cello that night and now programs the series, "and we continued our concerts." Musicians hoping to perform solo or chamber recitals often have trouble finding venues, and audiences, he says. "I've performed solo recitals for five people in the audience, and it isn't much fun."
While some things have changed -- the audience has swelled from a few friends to a group so large Steele cannot fit them all in his loft, and he's begun to hire security and request a $10 donation to defray costs -- they've remained unstructured, informal events always scheduled on a Monday. The food and drink comes from audience members, potluck style. Though the audience is quiet during performances, he wants them to feel like participants in the concerts.
As word has gotten out, the series has attracted touring musicians to drop by. The players have included organist Christopher Bull and, in March, two members of the Vienna Philharmonic who sat in. At the August concert, Siberian violinist Vadim Repin was in the audience but didn't perform. Often the musicians are up-and-comers, like pianist Yana Reznik, who performed Prokofiev and will soon self-release a CD.
While many of these players have regular venues, they play for free at Steele's loft for love of the sport. "Here," says Oskotsky, "you can try out different interpretations of a piece, which you wouldn't do in a formal hall."
Julie Resh is a television producer and longtime friend of Steele's who videotapes the concerts and offers them to the musicians. She's drawn by the informal setting and what she calls "incredible" acoustics as well as the quality of the musicians Steele and Velichkin attract. "He has such a wide range of contacts and friends," Resh says of Steele. "He puts the word out that something's happening and people show up. . . . It's people who really want to be there."
In the next few months, Steele plans to keep the series rolling as best he can, with audience demand already much larger than he can squeeze into his loft. He's excited about a new Classical Underground label, which will allow him to get the music out to a larger audience. He's also mulling the idea of offering poetry readings, tapping into people's unsatisfied hunger for expressive language.
Steele's main concern right now is keeping its spontaneous and bohemian flavor as the audience and profile grow. He's trying to figure how to balance longtime fans with newcomers in a space that can't support much more than 300. What will he do if 1,000 people show up to the next concert?
Steele has the same operating style whether the issue is painting or showmanship. "Napoleon was famous for having a meticulous battle plan," he says. "But he's famous for saying, 'No plan survives the first shot.' You throw it all out of the window."