Symphony and Suds Takes Classical Music Off the Stage and Into the Taproom

Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra in a program of Sibelius at Orchestra Hall. For many, classical music feels unapproachable and of another era. The Minnesota Orchestra has launched new concert series' in order to combat that stereotype. // Photo by Courtney Perry

Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. For many, classical music feels unapproachable and of another era. The orchestra has launched four new concert initiatives to change that stereotype. // Photo by Courtney Perry

In a time when all things old are suddenly cool again, you’d think orchestral music would be a hot ticket item. But for some reason, while record players and retro furniture and typewriters have all made their way back into everyday life, classical music is still being snubbed by younger generations, and labeled as stuffy, unapproachable, high-brow, and boring.

That was the dilemma the Minnesota Orchestra faced back in 2014: namely, how could they reach a younger market, show music lovers the reality of classical music—the drama and intensity, passion and complexity of it—and break down the barriers that separated this genre from all the others.

To tackle the problem, the Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors gathered 20 of their best and brightest and started brainstorming. One of the people selected for the task force was Ken Huber. Huber is a concert pianist, former Carleton College senior lecturer, and steering committee member of Orchestrate Excellence, a coalition of audience and community members formed in 2012 to support the Minnesota Orchestra.

At the end of their initial meeting in June 2014, vice chair officer Karen Himle announced they were going to go around the table and each deliver an idea for what the orchestra would do in the next two months to work toward their goal—starting with Huber. “I suggested one thing off the top of my head,” he says. “But then I said, I think we really need to learn to talk to young people, and ask them what connection—if any—they have to the Minnesota Orchestra.”

First, Huber and Orchestrate Excellence put together a youth market research study. Huber also called Jim Watkins, co-owner of Sociable Cider Werks and a former student of Huber’s at Carleton. The two got together for coffee, and Huber wasted no time. “I said, Jim, how can we get Sociable Cider Werks partnered up with the Minnesota Orchestra?” Huber recalls. “And Jim goes, oh that’s easy.”

Shortly after their coffee meeting, Watkins emailed Huber with “easily actionable ideas” to reach what he calls “the Millennial Urban Sophisticate”—or, the MUSes.

MUSes, according to Watkins, are individuals aged 25–45 who live in the city, have a penchant for all-things local, cover a wide range of income levels, are willing to spend money on small luxuries, make decisions based on value rather than cost, listen to the full gamut of music genres, drink craft beer, are social media savvy, and, most importantly, know what is “cool” and largely drive pop culture in the city.

To reach this audience, Watkins suggested four ideas. The winner: having members of the Minnesota Orchestra perform live at taprooms around Minnesota, then spend time mingling with patrons to answer questions, tell them more about the orchestra, and drink beer.

And with that, Symphony and Suds was born.

First up to try out the new idea were Uptown Brass, a brass quintet of Minnesota Orchestra players, who played February 19 and 26, 2015, at Sociable Cider Werks.

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Uptown Brass, a brass quintet of Minnesota Orchestra players, played the first Symphony and Suds shows in February 2015 at Sociable Cider Werks. This year, they’ll play at Surly Brewing Company on May 5. // Photo courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

The five musicians—Michael Gast (horn), Douglas C. Carlsen (trumpet), Charles Lazarus (trumpet), R. Douglas Wright (trombone), and Steven Campbell (tuba)—have played together for over a dozen years, and are used to performing in non-traditional venues. Not only that, but their repertoire includes more than “just” classical charts. “Jazz, modern, polkas, opera, Britney Spears, Johnny Cash: we do it all,” Gast says. “When we rehearse in my garage, my neighbors often come out to listen; it turns into a party.”

As for playing in a brewery, Gast and Campbell say that rather than feel out of place for them as professional classical musicians, they felt right at home. “It’s our natural habitat,” Gast laughs. “We had a lot of fun,” Campbell adds. “We have a lot of fun playing together in a group, and to have people be that close to us and be able to mingle and chat with them between sets is nice.”

More than 200 people turned up for the inaugural event. Some were there specifically for the music, others just to drink at Sociable. But regardless, the barrier between classical music and everyday living had been broken—indeed, The Brass Boyz were even invited back to perform at the 2015 NE Brewer’s Block Party in July—which means the orchestra’s goal was that much closer to being reached.

Encouraged by those first events, Emma Smith, associate marketing manager for the Minnesota Orchestra, decided to make a full go of it for 2016: more events, more collaboration, and more outreach. Her first mission was to track down breweries willing to host musicians. “I just started cold calling everyone,” Smith says. “We’re used to planning two years in advance with the orchestra, but to ask breweries to commit to something that’s over a year away—well, it was tough,” she laughs.

Watkins helped Smith connect with Surly Brewing Company, and two breweries—Boom Island Brewing Company and Insight Brewing—actually reached out to her once the word got out. In the end, Smith got six commitments: Excelsior Brewing Company, Boom Island Brewing Company, Sociable Cider Werks, Surly Brewing Company, Insight Brewing Company, and Fair State Brewing Cooperative.

The string quartet performance at Excelsior Brewing Company on Saturday, January 30 // Photo courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

The string quartet performance at Excelsior Brewing Company on Saturday, January 30, 2016 // Photo courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

“We looked for places that were suited for the different musicians,” Smith says. “Excelsior [Brewing, where the first Symphony and Suds concert of 2016 was held] has a stage and sound equipment, so we were able to do a string quartet.” For other bigger, louder venues, like Sociable and Surly, Smith opted for bigger, louder instruments: horns and brass. “We don’t have to worry about noise when we play,” Campbell jokes. “We just play above the noise.”

The Minnesota Orchestra has launched a handful of other new concert initiatives in addition to Symphony and Suds in the last year. Saturdays at Six features performances starting at 6pm instead of 8pm, so concertgoers can still have a full night following the concert; $20under40 offers any concertgoer aged 40 or under to buy up to two $20 tickets to select concerts; and OH+ features pre- and post-concert happy hours, talks, exhibits, and performances.

Additionally, each brewery partner for Symphony and Suds will also have their beer featured at Orchestra Hall before the “casual concert” that pairs with that month’s Symphony and Suds. (For example: Boom Island will be pouring free samples on Friday, March 11, prior to “Inside the Classics: And Bach Begat…“)

Taken together, these are all new ways to reach a more diverse audience, and dispel the idea that classical music is somehow inaccessible and outdated.

“Classical music, as a term, has a weird connotation,” Campbell says. “But the majority of people at these small events will come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t realize classical music could be fun!’ If you take the ‘classical’ out, you’ll see it’s just music. You just need to remove those barriers to entry.”

The next opportunity to tear down those walls is at the second installation of Symphony and Suds, Thursday, February 25, at Boom Island Brewing Company. A string quartet will be performing works by Bach and some of the many composers his work influenced. Additional shows are scheduled at Sociable Cider Werks, Surly, Insight, and Fair State in the coming months.

Find the full Symphony and Suds schedule here

For more on Minnesota Orchestra events and concerts, visit

About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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