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Adagio for clubs Classical music finds intimacy in nightclubs

NEW YORK -- After so many centuries, Beethoven isn't always hot stuff. But on a recent Thursday here, the composer's cello sonatas packed in the customers at the Bleecker Street club Le Poisson Rouge -- in conditions so steamy that pianist Simone Dinnerstein dressed as if she'd just come from playing with her son in the park and cellist Zuill Bailey shed his natty suit coat between movements.

No complaints, though. They had a kind of success not possible at their usual haunts.

"The closeness of the audience, the fact that people are in a much more relaxed setting . . . that's what concerts should be like," said Dinnerstein later. "In concert halls, the separation from the audience feels antiquated to me."

Even the in-concert chat felt different. Performers often talk to audiences these days, but here, the combination of wit and smarts suggested that this pair was addressing friends rather than strangers. Commenting on how Beethoven's sonatas have three working parts spread between the two instruments, Dinnerstein said, "I feel like my left hand should take a bow."

Though Dinnerstein and Bailey happily move on to a season of high-profile conventional concerts, the Poisson Rouge advantages were tangible: Afterward, roughly a third of the 250 paying customers bought the pair's new Telarc discs of Beethoven sonatas -- in contrast to, say, Philadelphia's Mann Center, where a noted violinist can give a beautifully received concerto performance but stand idle at the autograph stand amid quickly departing listeners.

The audience was unusually committed to being there, as opposed to showing up because the concert is on a long-ago-paid-for subscription. At Poisson Rouge, an advance sale of 30 is a lot. That means the audience acts on a be-here-now impulse -- and despite the potential distraction of dinner, was quieter than a Carnegie Hall crowd, a dressed-down version of which was there (and inquiring about disability seating).

This venue isn't unique. Though classical music isn't supposed to make you want to drink (quite the opposite), that option is increasingly available in trendy settings better known for indie rock.

While Poisson Rouge casts its net widest -- from the ultramodernist string quartets of Iannis Xenakis to Monteverdi's opera "The Coronation of Poppea" -- the stylish Galapagos Art Space, a cabaret in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, hosts new works being developed by the American Opera Project. And the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea featured a recital by pianist Jeremy Denk in a brainy program of Bach and Ives. True, martini shakers intervened during Denk's Bach, and a bouncer ushered him out when he lingered too long after performing while the club was cleared for the next show. But the freedom of the situation, he said, bordered on eerie.

"I could have put the intermission anywhere. I could have improvised between pieces. There was a lot that I could have done but didn't do because it was my first time," said Denk.

The power of the club atmosphere is undeniable: Poisson Rouge's expansive amphitheater layout somewhat recalls the now-defunct Rainbow Room, while Galapagos' main floor is actually a reflecting pool with islandlike seating areas.

Despite the temptation to give lighter programs in standard hourlong club sets, Dinnerstein and Bailey opted for a full evening of three Beethoven cello sonatas with a short intermission. "It felt like the audience could handle a lot more," Dinnerstein said. And she was right.