Our Quartet Could Be Your Life: A Talk21 with Justin Kantor

Growing up, Justin Kantor played in garage bands with his friends before he decided he wanted to be a classical cellist. He worked hard and was admitted to a conservatory, but at school he found himself missing the young, reckless energy of his garage band days. He wondered if there were a way to merge the rock-and-roll club scene with his classical crowd, so in 2008 he co-founded, along with his friend David Handler, the New York City-based concert venue (le) poisson rouge.

Since then, (le) poisson rouge, or LPR for short, has established itself as a leader in the multi-genre arts scene, providing a space where classical musicians can create the same close, modern electricity in their shows as rock and jazz musicians. Featuring luminaries like violinist Hilary Hahn one night, punk legend Iggy Pop on another and a variety of up-and-comers in between, the philosophy of LPR holds that if you’re an artist of merit who can sell tickets, you are welcome to play there. 

Drawing on his experience at (le) poisson rouge, Kantor believes that classical musicians can take this approach to concertizing and run with it, exercising more control over their artistic mission than perhaps ever before. At the 21CMposium hosted at DePauw University, Kantor shared his personal story and the lessons he thinks classical musicians can apply to their own lives.


On the design idea behind (le) poisson rouge… 

When we designed LPR, we were designing a space that gave us the ability to present a lot of different types of music. From the entranceway, [it looks like you’re in] some kind of art installation. Since the concept is about breaking boundaries, instead of people walking in and knowing exactly where they’re going, we wanted it to feel [like] you don’t know which way to the seats, which way to the bathroom, the bar. We wanted to almost create a sense of confusion to open people’s minds right when they got into the space. 

On what classical musicians should keep in mind when reaching out to clubs…

What does it mean for classical musicians who want to take advantage of this ecosystem that is now open to them? From an artist’s perspective, this is how you should be reaching out to LPR. [You should have a documented tour history, social media links, YouTube/Vimeo videos, no CDs and no downloads.] We’re trying to figure out who you are as musicians, how many people you can bring in from the New York area, our market. We get a lot of these inquiries. It should all be through email. Never mail anything. Everything should be streaming.  

The cool thing is, this other ecosystem is something that you can organically build, that you can be in complete control over. And you can start that by just playing a lot. This is not something that can only happen at LPR or a club that is mission-heavy like we are towards presenting classical music. These club owners look at the same things that LPR looks at: What’s your audience? Can you sell tickets? And how many people are going to be in the room buying drinks? If they feel comfortable with that, you can book a show there. It doesn’t matter what genre you are.

On the importance of creating a scene…

That brings me back to this concept of creating a scene. Something [you as an artist] can do, beyond playing concerts, is to find your scene or create your own scene. This is something that’s been done very much in the past. [There are] a couple of scenes we may have all heard of – Les Six, Sleeping Giant, The Mighty Handful, and New Amsterdam Presents. Really, classical music is a niche market, just like grunge rock was in the 1980s, and punk rock and doom metal, or anything. So I think it’s a great way for classical artists to connect with this rock-and-roll model of booking shows. 

The above excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is co-founder and managing member of (Le) Poisson Rouge (LPR), a critically-acclaimed, multi-media performance space, art gallery, and cabaret in New York’s Greenwich Village. …more 

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