House concerts in the Netherlands, Madrid, Houston, etc

The late composer pianist Robert Avalon first introduced the term “home concerts” to me on one of my frequent trips to Houston where he was based. I languished in the triangular logic of “home is where the heart is” and “music is the food of love” and therefore “home concerts” or “house concerts.” It made total sense.

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A journalist for a popular monthly magazine in Amsterdam called me an hour ago to enquire about house concerts. It’s a subject I’d like to write about, having personally experienced them in London, North Wales, Birmingham, Houston, Bussum, Utrecht, and Amsterdam.

I should clarify that initially I organised and produced house concerts in London so that I could perform in them. It evolved into a mechanism to play chamber music with interesting musicians that I was meeting in my travels. I’ve also attended concerts in beautiful homes in Houston, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. Nowadays I prefer to perform and leave the organising to house concert producers.

The late composer pianist Robert Avalon first introduced the term “home concerts” to me on one of my frequent trips to Houston where he was based. I languished in the triangular logic of “home is where the heart is” and “music is the food of love” and therefore “home concerts” or “house concerts.” It made total sense.

Robert Avalon and Anne Ku improvising piano duets in Houston
Robert Avalon and Anne Ku improvising piano duets in Houston

After performing in difficult situations, such as against the rattling of refrigerators and restlessness of audiences not familiar with the classical concert circuit, I longed for the silence and stillness of dedicated house concert audiences. They pay anywhere between 8 euros (Funen Concerts Art Productions, Amsterdam) to 15 euros (on average) and up, even voluntary contributions for a house concert that could include refreshments or more.

Our Monument House Concert Series, which hosts concerts twice a year in our home, began as a vehicle to share our music and our musician friends with our neighbours and the local community in 2006. It was also a way to introduce new repertoire, such as Robert Bekkers’ solo guitar programme in the 2007 Kitchen Concert in our newly renovated kitchen.

Kitchen Concert, Monument House Concert Series Utrecht
Kitchen Concert, Monument House Concert Series Utrecht

I am lucky to be on the mailing of a house concert series in prestigious Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, where I’ve once turned pages to experience it first-hand. The photographer-turned-impresario stores four grand pianos for musicians that allow them to be used in his ground floor flat which accommodates up to 80 people.

We gave our most recent contemporary duo concert in a house concert series in Funen Park Amsterdam. The owners Bart and Erik run their fortnightly Sunday afternoon concert series and art gallery out of their modern one-bedroom apartment. This deserves a separate blog entry.

Piano Guitar Duo in Funen Arts Concert Series Amsterdam, July 2009
Piano Guitar Duo in Funen Arts Concert Series Amsterdam, July 2009

Earlier in May, we gave a concert in a beautiful villa on the edge of Madrid — another forthcoming blog to write.

Piano Guitar Duo at El Jardin de Belagua in Madrid
Piano Guitar Duo at El Jardin de Belagua in Madrid

On 26 September 2009, we will give a mixed concert in a new house concert series in Amsterdam. In the first weekend in October, we will organise a classical guitar concert in our Monument House Concert Series, the previous one being a cross-domain event of contemporary piano duets with live video in March (pictured below).

Effusion of new works for piano duet against video, Monument House Concert
Effusion of new works for piano duet against video, Monument House Concert

What is so special about house concerts? For musicians, we get the opportunity to play to an attentive audience who are true connoisseurs of our music. It also allows us to “practise” before an important audition, a competition or a bigger concert, such as a high profile venue.

For the audience, it’s a rare occasion to go into someone’s private dwelling and enjoy live music in an intimate and relaxed setting.

Once you’ve experienced a house concert, you would think twice about going to a big hall, sit among strangers, and leave as soon as the music is over. We encourage our house concert guests to linger and get to know the performers and members of the audience.

While house concerts are a big and necessary part of the Americana singer-songwriter movement in the USA and Canada, it is not so well advertised (if at all) for classical music. Ironically in the 19th century, chamber music was performed in such house concerts where often performers played their own compositions. We tell the story of the Ducaten concerts of Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Mauro Giuliani where you pay one “ducat” to attend. But how many composers perform their own works today?

What do the organisers get out of producing house concerts? We put on three consecutive concerts in the space of two days in November 2007 to raise funding for our first trip to the USA (pictured below). For us, a mailing list and a large network of classical aficionados helped make it a joy to organise. Each concert was unique. In the following month, we gave two house concerts in Houston, the first in a 10,000 sq. ft designer home of architects in Memorial Park and the second in the town house of an investment banker in Montrose.

Piano Guitar Duo for Export House Concert Utrecht
Piano Guitar Duo for Export House Concert Utrecht

I told the journalist that producing house concerts isn’t profitable unless you do it on a regular (frequent) basis. “It barely breaks even for us,” I said. “We don’t charge our time or that of our volunteers. We have often included home-cooked food and a variety of refreshments. It’s time-consuming and interruptive to our daily routine, for we have to move the furniture and give up our rehearsal space.”

“So why organise house concerts?” she asked.

“It has to be for the love of music and a desire to share.”

I neglected to mention that the garden house (designed by Robert Bekkers in 2007 and finished in 2009) is our new venue for extremely intimate house concerts. Below is a video tour taken just before the celebrated violin guitar duo of Matt and Beth arrived from Italy to stay for a week. Duo46 had opened our first concert in summer 2006 with “Music of the Americas.”

We will be hosting the Cape Town classical guitarist Derek Gripper at the end of September next. Watch this space.

Background noise and foreground music

During the quiet movements of Rodrigo’s Fantasia for a Gentleman, I heard the refrigerator compete for attention. Its crescendo to a fortessimo intruded upon the guitarist’s solo and intercepted my dialogue. I could feel its girations on the floor and against my piano bench.

The black grand piano sat in the corner next to a refrigerator that was to play a significant role in the morning concert. We are weary whenever we enter a hall that doubles up as an eating area with an ensuite kitchen.

Yesterday in Deventer, over an hour’s drive east of Utrecht and east of the famous Veluwe forests, the distinct odour of fried fish lingered from lunch. Barely a week ago on a sunny August morning in Zoetermeer, a half-hour ‘s drive west of Utrecht, thankfully there was no smell but rather the anticipation of something imminent.

I don’t know which is worse: to endure the smell or the noise and unsettling traffic of cooks, staff, volunteers, and residents.

And it certainly doesn’t help when the refrigerator rattles its own ostinato and cadenza.

That August morning in Zoetermeer (which means Sweeter Lake in Dutch) we asked the head volunteer to ask the kitchen staff to switch off the refrigerator. The volunteer mentioned to us that there was not enough staff that morning to get all the residents into the hall, an indication that she was helpless to change the situation.

We sat in the small windowless dressing room wondering what to expect if the fridge continued its buzzing as we had experienced during our warm-up.

The ominously looking refrigerator welcomed us into the hall while more residents were being wheeled in, behind us. We tuned and began the concert with a short Badinerie, the famous one from Bach’s second orchestral suite. The low ceilings didn’t do justice to the grand piano. The volunteer sitting closest to me set a poor example for the audience when she chatted at will. Any amount of noise and restlessness was detrimental to our delivery of music intended for the foreground not background.

During the quiet movements of Rodrigo’s Fantasia for a Gentleman, I heard the refrigerator compete for attention. Its crescendo to a fortessimo intruded upon the guitarist’s solo and intercepted my dialogue. I could feel its girations on the floor and against my piano bench. The vibrations conflicted with the rhythm of the Baroque dance of Gaspar Sanz, whose theme lent Rodrigo the air of antiquity.

Just when the noise became too loud to bear, it died quietly to a near niente. Peace at last, I thought, but not for long. By the time we ended the first half with Torroba’s Sonatina, we had heard several such cycles of the uninvited instrument.

During the break, we asked the volunteer again if she could get the kitchen staff to switch off the fridge. She said it was impossible. At first I guessed that the rules of the house made it impossible. But the guitarist thought otherwise.

“Of course it’s possible,” he said. “If the power is cut off, the fridge wouldn’t buzz. The cakes won’t melt in 30 minutes. Just unplug it.” He was angry for he had overheard the earlier conversation between the cook and the volunteer.

The cook had refused to switch off the fridge and complained that it wasn’t his fault that the piano was put next to the kitchen. In other words, the dining hall should not be used for concerts. And he wasn’t about to switch off the fridge, just because somebody asked him to.

Accepting fate, we grudgingly returned for the second half.

No amount of concentration could tune out the vibrato of the refrigerator. At some point, an elderly woman sitting in the front row began to sob uncontrollably. Perhaps the slow movement of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had brought back memories that ignited such an outburst. She was quietly led away.

The attention then returned to our duo but not for long.

The distant shuffling of paper, more precisely cellophane being unwrapped and rewrapped, permeated the hall from the kitchen. With my back turned to the refrigerator, I could not see the kitchen but I could hear the staff. They went about their duties, taking out things from the other fridge, unwrapping food stuffs, and making sounds typical of a meal being prepared.

We were furious.

“Next time this happens,” declared the guitarist. “We should just leave. We can’t perform under such noisy conditions. I can’t even hear myself.”

At the next concert (yesterday afternoon in Deventer), the fridge and the kitchen were silent. But one volunteer walked on stage during our performance, to sit at a table with his back to me. It seemed strange that he would sit alone, even more strange to share a stage with a live performance. He scribbled notes on a writing pad and later, during the break, advised me that I should announce the previous piece played when I’m introducing the next piece. Was he a volunteer or a resident of the nursing home? I wonder.

Needless to say, I was grateful for the quiet kitchen and mindful of the stranger who entered on and off stage.