Three Bassoons Walk Into a Bar...: The Near-Classical "Noncert" at Under the Volcano

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Photos by Chris Gray

Under the Volcano does not feel like Under the Volcano. The TVs are off, so no more NBA on ESPN. Hayes Carll's Trouble In Mind has come and gone - in its entirety - on the jukebox, taking its bad livers, broken hearts and drunken poet's dreams with it... mostly.

Earlier, a regular - appalled that there were actual music stands in the bar's small performance nook - asked Rocks Off if he should "mess with" the members of the Houston Symphony and other area orchestras setting up for Wednesday evening's "noncert," a bizarre program that will turn out to be half classical recital, half happy-hour mixer.

"That's up to you," we told him, managing to hold our tongue any further. "This isn't exactly three chords and the truth."

Now the musicians are ready to begin, and the evening's MC has an announcement. They understand it's a bar, so they're cool with people talking during the upcoming music, or as cool as they can be for people accustomed to performing in complete silence. But, he adds, "If you're breaking up with your girlfriend on your cell phone, you should probably go outside." Or, ahem, hitting on the blonde at the bar.

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Instead of performing as one big (well, mid-sized) ensemble, the musicians are broken up into several chamber-size groups. A gentleman who looks like an actuary or claims adjuster begins the program with a series of a cappella vocalizations, oddly similar to beat-boxing, he then echoes on a hand drum. The piece is called "Rock Etude," the MC tells us - an etude, French for "study," is a piece designed expressly for instruction, to improve performers' technical skills.

Only this crowd doesn't seem to need much instruction. It's the kind of crowd that probably has KUHF as the first radio preset in their cars, and no doubt give generously whenever pledge-drive time rolls around. By the way they're dressed, those might be some pretty big checks.

Rocks Off turns to our friend Lonesome Onry and Mean: "Is this the Twilight Zone?" "It's just a different scene," he says. "This is the $40-a-bottle wine people, not the $3-bottle of beer people."

Rocks Off is much more comfortable mingling with the $3-beer people, but we do enjoy the $40-a-bottle music. The next performance is three short pieces arranged for a brass trio of trumpet, French horn and trombone. The first is a toe-tapping march - brisk, stately, contrapuntal and veddy British. The second is in waltz time, and makes us think of boater hats, handlebar mustaches and those bicycles with giant rear wheels, but it's not far off from a theme to some Rockford-style '70s or '80s detective show either.

The trio closes with a piece by early-20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc (the only composer's name of the three that we caught), who, the MC pointed out, is widely acknowledged as one of the first openly gay composers. Huh. The music is jaunty, lyrical and - dare we say it - almost Christmassy. There may have been some wassail consumption involved with its composition.

Time for another changeover, so Rocks Off heads out on the Volcano's front patio to smoke. "They're taking another break already?" the door guy asks the manager, who then shuts the window because one of the string players tuning up inside was cold. A man and two women are sitting at a nearby table, and we overhear the following conversation:

Man: "I want to hear some Black Sabbath. I grew up on Black Sabbath. I like a little devil in my music."

First Woman: "I grew up on cat food. I ate it because I wanted to. I like the semi-moist kind the best."

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By the time we have turned that little revelation over in our heads a few times, the strings are ready. It's still pretty chattery in the bar, and we're sure even the slightest hint of crowd noise must piss players like this off no end. But the music, which is dark and cheery and stormy and formal and elated, is beautiful.

"This is by Beethoven or somebody, right before he died," LOM tells us. We steal a peek over one of the violinists' shoulders at the sheet music and can't make out a composer, but it's definitely German - which we kind of already knew), because the piece is titled "Streichquartet" (string quartet). It has all the same emotional contours of rock, country or blues.

We're both particularly impressed with the player in the purple, who sways back and forth during the Streichquartet more like she's stalking her sheet music than reading it. "She's violent about this stuff," LOM observes. "She gives a shit - this is important to her. She's in a bar, people are talking, and she plays like a gypsy."

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We missed most of the bassoon trio because we were out on the back patio smoking - hey, it's what people do at a bar - and when we get back inside, it's just in time for another intermission. Stay tuned, the MC tells us, because we are about to "party" with some Bartok viola duets. Our surreal meter is off the charts at this point.

The duets are aptly named - one, "Teasing Song"; another, "Ruthanian Dance." A Russian button accordionist joins the violas for one final, equally vivacious, number. During one of the duets, we noticed one of the performers' fellow musicians bopping along to the Bartok like it was Iggy Pop.

We know exactly how she feels. Finally, after an entire evening of feeling a whole lot like a fish out of water, something familiar.

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