By Dan Guarino
Within Rockaway’s adventurous sound scene, everything from bagpipes to blues, fits right in. Now expanding that musical movement is its newest addition, Rockaway Chamber Music.
RCM is playing this Sunday, July 23, 7 p.m., at the open-air Arverne Cinema on Beach 72nd Street, next to the Rockaway Brewing Company.
“Rockaway Chamber Music is a flexible collective of musicians,” explains founder Emily Brausa. Matching players to the pieces being performed, she says, “I like to bring together individual performers rather than fixed ensembles.”
“I started Rockaway Chamber Music this summer. Though it’s pretty common for surf destinations to lack classical music, Rockaway Beach is a wonder in its accessibility to New York City.”
About bringing classical sounds to this unique setting, she notes, “We could get on the ferry or the A train to go see world-class musicians perform at BAM or Lincoln Center. But wouldn’t it be nice sometimes to be able to ride our cruiser bikes instead?”
The Rockaway vibe has been part of Rockaway Chamber Music from the beginning. As has maintaining a relaxed, non-traditional classical music approach. “Being able to perform and listen to chamber music in Rockaway al fresco — complete with birds and trains and planes — is a unique experience from all angles,” she said.
It was Rockaway’s turf and surf that led to RCM’s formation. “I moved to Rockaway June of 2020. I had become interested in surfing, and have always loved the ocean,” Brausa says. Noting “I’m a former lifeguard from the landlocked state of Kansas,” she says she started surfing about five years ago. Originally living in upper Manhattan, the surf and the sea frequently brought her to Rockaway’s shore. “I love the physicality of surfing. I love being in the water, the light at sunrise and sunset, the thrill of catching long rides. I love the dolphins. I love seeing a whale breach just feet in front of me in New York City! I also love the quiet meditation of being by myself on my board.
“I knew that I would love the sea life, but unexpectedly, Rockaway is the first place I’ve ever lived where I actually feel like I’m a part of a community.
“I love the diversity and the seasonal shifts in energy. It’s funny — I still have colleagues who ask me when I’m ‘moving back to the city.’ I just laugh as I can’t imagine living anywhere else in New York City that would make me as happy as I am now.”
Brausa has been involved with music since childhood, with her parents enrolling her in piano lessons at age 4. She chose cello as her instrument at age 8. Learning via the Suzuki musical method was an “excellent (system) of learning music that basically teaches an instrument in the way you learn a language. So by ear first, and you learn to read later.” She credits strong public school music programs for fostering her development, leading her to study at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy and later earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at NYC’s Julliard.
Julliard also opened up amazing musical opportunities for her, getting to perform in major classical venues with “incredible conductors,” play Carnegie Hall and even tour throughout Europe and China while still a student.
Brausa recalls her “first entré into non-classical music was through a band I met called the Kin.”
Her current resume as a working musician includes Saturday Night Live, Late Nights, “numerous early morning shows, playing under the New Year’s Eve ball drop with Taio Cruz. I went on the road with Ra Ra Riot for awhile, had a new music group, toured with a puppet show in Switzerland, performed on a cruise through Southeast Asia. A lot of Broadway, ballet, orchestra, and gigs. Dare I say being a freelance cellist in New York City is fun?”
She’s now finishing up the American Ballet Theater’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House, before returning to her job as principal cellist for the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.” In August she’ll play the upstate Bard Festival with the American Symphony Orchestra. This fall she’s touring with a Pam Tannawitz/ David Lang piece called “Song of Songs.” She’ll also be playing recording sessions, and is on faculty at Third Street Music Settlement in the East Village.
Shortly after she started Rockaway Chamber Music, they played their first pop-up concert at Edgemere Farms, where Brausa is also a volunteer. “I thought, ‘What’s the weirdest instrument I could bring to an urban farm?’ So I called up my friend Tomina Parvanova Lyden to come out to play harp with me.”
She has continued to invite a flexible roster of talented musicians, while tailoring each line-up to best suit each music piece. “At our first Arverne Cinema concert, I knew I wanted to play Lelihua Lanzilotti’s horn quartet, so I built a program around strings and French horn. On July 23, you’ll hear a string quartet concert, simply because I’ve been dying to play Benjamin Britten’s ‘Three Divertimenti’ since I heard them the first time just last year. We’re also going to perform one of Caleb Burhans’ string quartets, which will be cool for audience members who saw him play viola in June. I like to program both new and old. There’s a reason pieces become classics.”
So far, audience reactions have made her “feel like Rockaway cares about having classical music! After our (Arverne) concert, someone mentioned to me that everyone was smiling—both on and off stage.”
And that is part of the magic Brausa and RCM are aiming for. “Classical music often has the air of formality, when to clap, tuxedos, expensive tickets, don’t cough, etc.”
“Rockaway Chamber Music is an experience, a hang. Grab a beer next door, get some snacks, sit where you feel comfortable and let us take you for a ride. The shows are an hour long and affordable. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, but we all know nothing sounds quite like Rockaway!”
Photos by Alec Kugler and B. Paul Morado.