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Updated Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 07:31 AM

Parnassus Project brings chamber music to the coffee-shop set

By Katya Yefimova
Special to The Seattle Times

Mount Parnassus is known in Greek mythology as the home of the muses, where all art forms come together.

Inspired by this idea, local classical musicians Ruth Mar and Brooks Tran wanted to find a way for music and community to converge. The result is the Parnassus Project, an ensemble that marries chamber music with cafe culture.

“People think chamber music is highbrow, but it should be accessible to the average person,” said Mar, the ensemble’s director, of the musical style that is written for small instrumental ensembles. It’s typically performed in smaller auditoriums and without a conductor.

The Parnassus Project has traded the music hall for small, informal venues where the performance is part concert, part social gathering — with clinking glasses, roaring espresso machines and other distractions.

Since its inaugural concert in the spring, the Parnassus Project has been spotted playing at coffee shops, a tavern, a bookstore, a library and a farmer’s market.

Mar, 28, of Kirkland, and Tran, 25, of Mercer Island, met as music students at the University of Washington. Mar, a harpist, earned a master’s degree from the School of Music in 2010. Tran started his doctorate-degree program in piano performance at the school this year.

Talking with other musicians over coffee at the aptly named Parnassus Café in the basement of the UW’s art building, Mar and Tran found out that many shared their vision of sharing chamber music with people who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to hear it.

The ensemble’s first concert took place at Café Cesura in downtown Bellevue.

“We had no idea what to expect,” Tran said. “We got a standup crowd huddled in the cafe, and people walking past were looking into the windows.”

That meant the Parnassus Project had a future. Mar and Tran started approaching venues where they wanted to play and later began to receive requests. Other musicians became interested in collaborating. The group now has 10 core members and a rotating roster of players.

The casual atmosphere at the ensemble’s concerts creates a different experience for the audience, Tran said. It’s a different experience for the musicians, too.

Concerts like that attract a mixed crowd, including young people and families.

“The kids always like to touch Ruth’s harp,” he said.

That’s not something that happens at a concert hall, where the artists perform in absolute silence, with all eyes trained on them.

In some ways, the space dictates the concert, Tran said. Musicians need to decide what kinds of instruments they can bring to the venue and what kind of music they can play. For example, Tran often finds himself playing on an electronic keyboard, since coffee shops and bars are rarely outfitted with concert pianos.

People at casual venues have shorter attention spans, which means the repertoire must be different, Mar said. The Parnassus Project usually presents a mix of shorter pieces, which include well-known works and music the artists want to introduce to the audience.

“Sometimes we have to work really hard to focus on a performance,” Tran said. “It’s been a really good learning experience.”

The Parnassus Project is not alone in trying to give classical music a community feel. Active music-for-the-masses movements long have been thriving in New York, San Francisco and Paris.

One group that does it right is Classical Revolution, Mar said. It’s a movement with chapters around the country whose performances are best described as “classical jam sessions.”

“As the music culture changes, people create new audiences for themselves,” she said.

For example, the Parnassus Project recently played at the Blue Moon tavern in the University District with Opera on Tap, which brings classical opera performances to bars, aiming for a wider audience while still managing to attract McCaw Hall regulars.

Mar said the musicians hope Parnassus Project is here to stay.

“As long as the people involved are having fun, that means we are doing the right thing,” she said.

Katya Yefimova:


The Parnassus Project

The group will perform at the Newcastle Library grand opening, 10 a.m. Dec. 8, 12901 Newcastle Way, Newcastle; free (

Luz Bratcher
Parnassus Project members aim to combine chamber music with cafe culture. The ensemble will perform at the Newcastle Library grand opening on Dec. 8.


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