A few years ago, Jennie Dorris earned her master’s degree in percussion performance from the University of Colorado. While she was passionate about music, she realized she faced a developing dilemma in the classical music world.
“It’s a discussion you’ll hear at all conservatories: the classical music audience,” Dorris says.
Audiences are getting older and smaller, and classical organizations are having difficulty recruiting a younger audience — and younger supporters. So Dorris, who plays with numerous groups, including the Boulder Philharmonic, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, the Boulder Brass and groups in Fort Collins, Greeley, Denver and Colorado Springs, decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I’ve got to do something about it or we’re not going to be able to do (classical music),” she says.
Dorris, who is also a writer (she worked for the Camera from 2002 until 2007) combined her two loves — music and literature — in the form of Telling Stories, a series of concerts featuring chamber music by professional musicians and personal essays read by Dorris and other writers. The performance take place at intimate settings like cafes, art galleries and even breweries.
Friday night, Dorris and other writers and musicians perform “A Taste of Telling Stories” at the 910Arts Gallery Events Space in Denver as part of First Friday. On Saturday the group performs its full show, “Set in Motion,” at the gallery.
The performance features a Ravel string quartet, an all-percussion performance of John Cage’s “three2” and a clarinet performance of “Liquid Sings,” which was written by local composer Loretta Notareschi. Dorris, Megan Quinn and Camera movie critic Jeanine Fritz will read essays around the theme of “Set in Motion.”
Dorris will recount a recent stint on jury duty in a double-murder trial in which she had to help decide on a life sentence for the defendant. Fritz will look at the ironic sense of humor of the almighty, and Quinn — who is part of the Denver Zine Library — will describe a near-relocation to Portland.
In a time when the arts are struggling for attention, Dorris feels that integrated performances — such as combining music and essays — is needed.
“Classical music is considered boring, and literature readings aren’t that sexy, so I thought if we put them together we could see how it works,” Dorris says. “Let’s take it out of the concert hall and take it to where young people are.”
The latter is probably the most unique aspect of Telling Stories. Started in 2006, Telling Stories initially called Boulder’s Laughing Goat coffeehouse home.
“We were playing Bach while they were mixing lattes,” Dorris says.
Telling Stories puts on four or more performances a year, and as the events have become more popular (regularly drawing more than 75 people and upward of 100) they’ve had to move to larger venues in Denver, such as the Mercury Café. But whether in a coffee shop or an art gallery, Telling Stories has taken classical music out of the concert hall — and in the process Dorris says the group has encouraged a casual environment that appeals to younger fans.
“I like seeing jeans. I like seeing pints of beer,” she says. “When you give people permission to be casual, they still have respect for the music. We’re not playing and people are disregarding us or laughing. They’re still respectful, but they do it on their terms.”
The performers take advantage of the casual environment as well.
“Pretty much every week I’m performing somewhere, and most times I have to put on my concert black and perform to an audience that thinks they can’t even cough during the movement,” says Megan Tipton, a violist who was an original member of Telling Stories and serves on its board. She will be part of the Ravel performance.
“It’s refreshing to perform in an environment where people who wouldn’t enjoy going to a typical classical performance go to a performance and feel like they’re not being held captive. They have the flexibility to go grab a beer or a cup of coffee while we’re performing, and that’s fine.”
Telling Stories keeps its shows fan-friendly by not charging admission. The group accepts donations, but they are not required and there is no pressure to contribute at a performance.
“I don’t think anybody should be dissuaded by big ticket prices,” Dorris says. “This is an outreach in a lot of ways. This is ‘Save the Music’ in a lot of ways. I think anything that stops people from coming to your show, you’ve got to avoid that.”
Friday’s performance even includes free beer. Great Divide Brewing Company is donating a keg of its Denver Pale Ale, and the gallery is providing snacks.
“We’ll get to enjoy that while we perform,” Tipton says with a laugh, noting the differences between this performance and those she does with the Boulder and Greeley philharmonic orchestras and Fort Collins Symphony.
To promote attendance and innovation, Telling Stories collaborates with other media organizations. Its shows have been broadcast on Radio 1190’s classical program “Standard Notation,” and the organization has set up an educational outreach program at the Denver School of the Arts.
Telling Stories has also teamed up with the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS), an international nonprofit dedicated to helping people tell meaningful stories from their lives with the assistance of digital media. The center gives workshops that provide a form of art therapy, particularly for those who are overcoming some type of crisis, and gives its students a voice in broadcast media.
Daniel Weinshenker is the director of the CDS’s Denver office (the main office is in California), and says that though media have evolved over time — from the oral tradition to the printing press to radio, TV and now the Internet — storytelling is an essential part of life. The goal is to keep that tradition alive.
“It’s sitting down for two hours and actually sitting there and listening to stories, sitting down for three days in a workshop. When’s the last time you spent three whole days thinking about something in your life?” he says. “People still long to connect in those ways and hear stories.”
Last May, the CDS hosted its first International Day for Sharing Life Stories, in which storytelling groups gathered all over the world, “from story circles where people told stories to digital stories,” Weinshenker says.
The annual event takes place on May 16 in honor of legendary storyteller Studs Terkel, who passed away on Halloween.
Telling Stories participated in this year’s inaugural event, with the CDS providing visuals for its essays.
“It’s a fun mixed-media atmosphere,” Weinshenker says.
Dorris says this spirit of collaboration is rare, yet refreshing, in the arts.
“I find as an artist that we are encouraged to be in competition with each other,” she says. “That’s not my style. I’m better with collaboration.”
The two groups are teaming up again for a dual event in February, and plan to collaborate more in the future.
“I love what they do because they’re professionals at what they do,” Weinshenker says. “They’ve decided that the opera house or symphony hall is not necessarily the only place where people should be able to hear this kind of music.
“The venue and the accessibility and the fact that it’s free, it brings this music back to the people,” he adds. “It’s going to get people into it. It’s not even just a younger crowd, but an economic strata that’s able to go and hear this music. That’s breaking down class boundaries, and that’s a good thing. People deserve to hear this music.”
The feedback has been very positive. Earlier this year, Denver’s Westword newspaper honored Telling Stories in its annual Best of Denver issue, awarding it “Best High Culture for the Cool Crowd.”
Dorris says it’s a big honor, “when you’re working really hard in the arts, and someone notices you like that.”
She also appreciates the more immediate recognition she receives from the audience.
“I hear from our audience — these aren’t people that have classical degrees. They don’t go to the symphony that much, but they have opinions. They have their favorite pieces,” Dorris says. “You don’t have to have this encyclopedic knowledge of classical music. You’ve just got to have an opinion. We’re going to give you a bunch of flavors and say, ‘What do you like?'”
“It’s relaxed. It’s entertaining. It’s a great way to get out and listen to live music without having to empty your pocketbook,” she says. “We have a broad range of music that we play, too. Last year we had some jazz at one concert. You just never know what to expect with Telling Stories. You’re just going to get a good variety, and chances are you’re going to find something that you like.
“Keep an open mind about classical music,” she adds. “A lot of people pigeonhole it and think it’s not for them. But there is a lot out there to be explored in this genre. Just keep an open mind. Try something new.”