Ilana Davidson remembers how ClassicalCafé was born, like it was yesterday.
Six years ago, with a blizzard roaring outside, Davidson and friend Jing Li sat watching the turmoil outside warm and toasty at An Beal Bocht Café, listening to live Irish music. The tunes performed that day were entertaining, but the two felt there was room for something different, something like classical chamber music.
“I think we took the next couple of weeks just texting each other names that we thought, and ‘ClassicalCafé’ was one of them,” she said. “Having classical music in a café environment, or an intimate environment where you could sit and have a drink or have coffee and listen to the music.”
ClassicalCafé was born, with Davidson’s soprano voice and Li’s cello. And the duo didn’t have to go far to find performance space — An Beal’s West 238th Street location was perfect. There they performed everything from regular classical music concerts to their annual performance of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
ClassicalCafé is now taking its talents to a bigger venue — Christ Church Riverdale. Four other musicians join Davidson and Li for “Offering,” a spring concert featuring music from Bach and Vivaldi on May 14.
While Davidson and Li love performing at An Beal, space is limited. “Offering” requires two violinists, a viola player, and someone on a harpsichord. Using Christ Church for its vast space was also an opportunity to introduce the group to a larger audience beyond the popular eatery.
Yet, the two haven’t forgotten their An Beal Bocht roots, especially their loyal followers over the years.
“There’s a lot of reaction, especially at the pub, because it’s so intimate there and they can be so close to the players and the” singing, Davidson said. “So you see a lot of joy on their faces. And sometimes, if the song is emotional or if the piece is emotional for you, you might make somebody cry.”
The An Beal regulars have helped ClassicalCafé stay true to their mission to bring classical chamber music to a local community, Li said.
“What feedback we’ve gotten from them is that they appreciate hearing quality classical music in their neighborhood, where they don’t have to go into the city and pay a lot of money to go hear a concert,” Li said. “We’re bringing quality classical music to them in their neighborhood.”
ClassicalCafé also has given Li and Davidson a chance to thrive as a duo.
“As a team, it’s great because we know each other really well, and we’re dear friends,” Davidson said. “When Jing and I make music together, there’s just this wonderful understanding. We can just look at each other and know exactly where we are in the music. So that’s fantastic.”
As full-time musicians, forming the group gives Davidson and Li the chance to be innovative on their own terms.
“ClassicalCafé has really been a labor of love because it’s an opportunity for us to present music that we love,” Li said. “So much of the time, we are called on to perform whatever somebody else has programmed. So this is also an opportunity for us to be creative in our programming.”
Looking ahead to their May 14 concert, Davidson wants first-time attendees who may not necessarily be classical music fans to open their ears and hearts — and maybe change that.
“I hope that they would realize that it’s completely accessible for them and something that moves them,” Davidson said, and that they love it and it inspires them to listen to more classical music.
“I think that a lot of the time that people feel intimidated by classical music, they don’t understand it, or (they think) it’s not relevant to them,” Li said. “But I think that in this day and age especially, we have to keep playing more music and help people understand that it is important to their lives … all kinds of music and art.
“It’s important we take the time to appreciate those things.”