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The concert had already begun at Emmanuel Church in Newport, and people were still streaming inside, looking for seats in the crowded pews. Towards the front of the nave, in the glow of the church’s purple stained glass, a quartet of saxophones rang out.

This group, The Sinta Quartet, is an award-winning ensemble that tours across the country and abroad at venues where tickets can be fairly expensive. On this recent April weekend, however, the concert was completely free to the public, put on by the local organization Newport Classical.

Among those in the audience were older seniors, couples that looked like they were on an afternoon date, and parents cradling young children. For many of the listeners, it was their first time hearing saxophones play classical music.

“I was like, ‘Woah, what is that dude doing?’ said Newport local Peter Bartram. “The acoustics of the church, when the bass and the tenor would hit those low notes — Oh my god, it just reverberates inside. And I love it when it makes your whole body vibrate.” 

Gillian Friedman Fox, the executive director of Newport Classical, says these kinds of moments are the goal of the free concerts. They aim to bring the community together and help people experience new forms of classical music, or introduce them to the genre for the first time. Fox says they’re mindful that listening to classical music can be intimidating.

Classical music — and this is everywhere — is plagued with this stigma of being for an educated audience, or that it's something that can't be enjoyed unless you are an expert,” she said. “We're really trying to change that.”

The organization was founded in 1969, and pioneered for over three decades by artistic director Mark Malkovich III, who made a point to bring in international musicians for their American debuts. During those years, the organization was largely built around an annual summer festival that attracted many visitors with concerts in Newport’s iconic Gilded Age mansions.

Fox says that photos from the 1970s and 80s show people at the festival wearing black tie attire, like tuxedos and gowns.

“And I think it's very charming, looking back,” she said, but noted, “That is not contemporary.”

Since Fox took the helm last year, Newport Classical has broken from its past and undergone a complete rebrand and renaming. Until 2021, it was called the Newport Music Festival, which was easy to confuse with the city’s Folk and Jazz festivals. Fox says the organization is also reimagining its relationship with the surrounding community, with the goal of being more relevant to Newport locals.

Last September, Newport Classical launched a year-round chamber series with monthly concerts throughout the winter. These concerts are shorter than usual, kept to about an hour and fifteen minutes, so young children and people with busy schedules can attend. While in town, the professional musicians also visit local public schools to meet with students and give workshops.

Trevor Neal, Newport Classical’s Director of Artistic Planning and Engagement, says these initiatives are important to reaching community members who often haven't been included in the past.

“Music knows no discrimination of color, or socioeconomic background,” he said. “And there are a lot of people who express a desire to learn more or know more about this art form, but feel that there is this barrier telling them that this is not for them.”

Neal’s current work is in part informed by his own experience in the classical music world. He is an opera singer, and before joining Newport Classical, he performed as a baritone with an opera company in San Jose. Neal says that, as a music student, he saw lots of diversity at the high school and college levels. After graduating, however, he often experienced being one of the few people of color in professional artistic spaces.

“So part of when I came here was also that piece — seeing how, at the time Newport Music Festival, now Newport Classical, could find a way to bridge that gap of classical music and artists of color,” Neal said, “in a way that wasn't, for lack of a better word, minstrel-like, but that was a true dedication to the artistic craft that these artists have.”

Newport Classical is now investing in the expansion of the classical canon, with a focus on supporting composers and musicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Last year, the organization announced they would begin commissioning a new work annually by a composer of color or woman composer. This year, composer Shawn Okpebholo will debut a piece inspired by the 19th-century composer Newport Gardner, who was formerly enslaved and later established a music school in Newport.

This all fits into a growing movement to make classical music a more equitable and accessible genre. Since 2012, Newport has already been home to the Newport String Project, a group that arranges concerts and free chamber music lessons for local students. Across the country, older institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are also providing free community concerts and education programs. Newport Classical and these counterparts hope the projects will change the future of classical music and grow its audience.

“So I'd say it's more and more common, but it's important that presenting organizations [like Newport Classical] that are this high-level are engaging in that,” said Dan Graser, a member of the Sinta Quartet, the classical saxophone group that performed the free community concert. “Because other presenters see it and then they'll start following suit.”

During their performances, Graser’s ensemble tries to keep things relaxed. The foursome pauses between pieces and takes turns explaining what they’re playing, as well as what people can listen for. They even tell some jokes.

Graser says the concert experience is not about giving the audience an education. Too often, listening to classical music can feel almost like eating your vegetables. It’s something that many people believe is good for them, but they shouldn’t necessarily like. But the Sinta Quartet — and Newport Classical’s latest efforts, more broadly — are trying to encourage people to listen for the sake of pure enjoyment.

“People are worried about not getting classical music,” said Graser. “They start listening to it as if they're supposed to get it — as opposed to just, as with any other music, enjoy it or not.”

That’s what it means to have taste in music, Graser says. Audience members need the chance to come out and engage with classical music in the first place. Then, they can decide for themselves.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at