For his first homework assignment at the prestigious Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, Alexey Steele brought in a seven-foot by seven-foot canvas. His fellow students laughed and declared him an incurable ‘gigantomaniac,’ thereby sealing his fate as a man with big ideas.
Fast forward several decades to a Monday night in Los Angeles at Alexey’s (you guessed it) large warehouse in Carson, where his biggest idea to date, Classical Underground (CU), is about to begin. Over two hundred people swirl around in eddies, checking out Alexey’s paintings as they wait for L.A.’s most unique classical music concert to begin. In addition to the snatches of Russian I expect to hear, there is French, Romanian, and Spanish. In the room nearest the entrance, there are long tables laden with all kinds of food and drink—it’s BYO everything. Myriad cultures represented gastronomically, as well as linguistically, in the form of fruit pies, pickled herring, hummus, dolma, donuts, gyoza, vodka, beer, and sake. The atmosphere is that of a Thanksgiving dinner with a family you actually like.
Amidst the teeming masses I make my way to Alexey, who is easy to spot due to the white Panama hat perennially perched atop his mountainous pile of dark curly hair, and underscored by a roguish black mustache. He is simultaneously kissing a grandmother, shaking hands with a pale disheveled young man and his paler girlfriend, and rubbing the head of a round, bald man in a Hawaiian shirt. The people don’t seem to know each other, but once all are squeezed into Alexey’s bearish embrace, they make introductions. Although I can’t hear what he’s saying, his donkey’s bray of a laugh cuts through all crowd noise like a hot knife through butter.
Before Classical Underground became L.A.’s most talked-about venue for classical music with hundreds of fans willing to drive to Carson on a Monday night, it was simply an impromptu gathering of Alexey’s friends, many of whom are classical musicians. Although Alexey cannot play a note, he finds inspiration for his painting in chamber music.
“I moved into this place, heard the acoustics in here, and said, ‘My God, we must have people play!’ My great friend Sergei” —with Alexey, everyone is a “great friend” and you believe it— “I wanted to hear him play, so I invited a couple of people over, he played, it was great. Then our other friends played, then it grew and grew until… Uh-oh! Suddenly I have a problem with people coming over!” He laughs his donkey laugh until I’m cracking up myself, then continues gesticulating wildly, “So I said if we do this, let’s REALLY do this! LET’S INVITE SOME PEOPLE!” His laugh runs away from him again, and I gladly follow.
For the September CU, Alexey and Maxim Velichkin (CU musical director and a phenomenally talented cellist to boot) decided for the first time to use an RSVP system. The email went out at 9 A. M., and by noon the 250 slots were full, but over 800 people tried to sign up anyway. Steinway Piano Gallery of Hollywood even donated a piano worth thousands of dollars to the cause. “And they told me classical music was dead?!” Alexey thunders, shaking his fists at the sheer audacity.