Steuart Pincombe was living the dream. Or so he thought.
The holder of degrees in cello and historical performance, Pincombe moved to the Hague in 2011 to take advantage of an offer to make use of a superb 18th-century German cello. He garnered so many European engagements that, after a couple of years, he cut out his orchestral work entirely to focus on solo and chamber-music appearances. It was, he said recently, “what we all dreamed of when we went to conservatory.”
But it all began to seem hollow. He was on the road so much that by his fourth year, he hardly saw his wife. Burnout was compromising his artistic efforts. “I thought, what am I able to give to audiences, if I have no life to draw from?” he said by phone from Long Island. “If I’m an artist, I’ve got to be a human being, have a real life, and be able to express those things through my music. I was feeling just like an empty shell.”
So last year, Pincombe gave up the awesome instrument. He and his wife returned to the United States, renovated a 1959 FAN travel trailer, and set out across North America. Music in Familiar Spaces, as they’re calling this DIY tour, consists of programs of Pincombe’s own devising, to be played in churches, cafes, anywhere that doesn’t feel like a traditional concert venue, with its physical and symbolic chasms between performer and audience. Entrants can name their own price for tickets.
Much like Matt Haimovitz, another cellist who stepped off the soloist fast track, Pincombe felt he needed to reconnect with the essence of music-making as both a personal and communal experience. “I wanted to see what I can do in a lot of smaller spaces, in making things feel less like the typical concert-hall experience and more like the audience is a part of what I’m doing and engaging throughout the concert.”
A large number of Pincombe’s concerts are at breweries, sites for his most popular program: “Bach and Beer,” for which he pairs Bach’s solo-cello suites with offerings from the tap. On Sunday the tour hits Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville; he’ll play the first three Bach suites, each paired with one of Aeronaut’s brews. As part of the informal concert plan, Pincombe will talk Bach and an Aeronaut brewer will talk beer, with questions from the audience welcome.
Like a lot of new ideas, “Bach and Beer” started as a joke, until Pincombe realized it could be a vehicle for his goal of “drawing new audiences and giving them the music in a very uncompromising manner,” he said. “When I play Bach, I want it to be a very serious Bach program. But how do you make the nonclassical listener excited about that? And I think it has nothing to do with the music, because everybody I’ve spoken to about it who hasn’t heard Bach before absolutely loves it — or they like it, but they don’t know how much they love it.”
Classical-wine pairings have been tried before, but Pincombe thought that beer’s quotidian character was a better fit for Bach: “this very down to earth, absolute genius, but very much involved in the nitty gritty in life.” And while the specific pairings of suites and beers are a fun touch, it was secondary to his deeper point about brewers and period-instrument performers: Each dives into the past for clues, yet seeks to make them relevant and meaningful to the present.
“It seems a little farfetched, but I thought, this is something that a lot of mainstream people can relate to, this craft-brewing tradition,” he explained. “They’re following traditions and old recipes from times long before the music of Bach, and there always seems to be a deep appreciation for, this is how they did it. But also, this is how we do it now, with respect to [the past].”
Pincombe estimates that he’s done about 20 iterations of “Bach and Beer” so far, and given that breweries can be ill-equipped to host unamplified concerts, there have surprisingly few pitfalls. Only once has he encountered real trouble being heard, when a running club entered the Atlanta brewery where he was playing, about halfway through the show. “There’s always that element — it’s not a sterile environment.”
Pincombe said that while he admires many other efforts to pry open concert-hall culture, he feels that musical quality sometimes gets lost amid the excitement of doing things in a new way. What he’s hoping for in his efforts is “to set a standard for it — that it’s not just your typical classical concert in a comfortable space,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been frustrated about in terms of the movement to do concerts in cafes and bars: Often, it’s practice for the next thing. I want it to be the thing.”
Steuart Pincombe: “Bach and Beer”
At Aeronaut Brewing Co., Somerville, May 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets: name your price. www.aeronautbrewing.com/events