Virtuoso pianist in San Francisco loft concert

There is something special about sitting among strangers in someone else’s home. We weren’t here to attend a birthday party or other personal celebration. We all came for the specific goal of experiencing a live performance in a private space.

It reminded me of the last house concert I organized, in which my reward (for organizing the concert) was enjoying the occasion from the first row seat, or rather, just behind the pianist. What did the hosts of tonight consider their reward? In the first half, all the seats were taken. They sat on the last few steps of the staircase. In the second half, they walked downstairs to free up the staircase for two couples and then stood in the kitchen, barely able to see above the others who were standing or sitting.

After the concert, I asked the Austrian lady sitting next to me if she was going to buy the Bulgarian pianist’s CDs. She had not brought any cash other than the $20 suggested donation. I did the same. I only had a credit card left. I suggested that we band together and leave an IOU for the pianist who had 4 CDs for sale. The gentleman next to me bought two. That whetted my appetite and made me want to get a CD.

The Austrian lady shook her head. She said the concert was well worth the $20, but she didn’t think she could fathom an IOU. It was not the custom. Instead she joined the queue to thank her personally.

There was a long line of people wanting to buy her CDs and talk to her. I looked around and observed. I didn’t know anyone except the hosts. Anybody would think that the hosts opened their loft apartment in this part of San Francisco, South of Market, on a regular basis for intimate occasions like this. It was a concert hall in a home.

The owner conceded that he hadn’t organized a concert in 6 months. He even gave the classical music Meet-Up online group that he had started to someone else. Where once organizing house concerts took mainstream in his life, he was now preoccupied with something else, something quite different. It was still community building but it was something much bigger.

“Next time,” I said to the owner, “you will have to open up the balcony seats.” This was the biggest turnout they had ever had. “You have set a standard. People will expect this from now on.”

During the intermission, someone asked him. “How did you know Nadejda?” He looked around and pointed at me. Later someone asked me, “Where is she from?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met her in person.

I had come to this concert because it was Chong Kee’s invitation and it was the pianist that I had introduced to him via e-mail. In fact, I arranged my travel so that I would return to Maui via San Francisco —- to see her give this concert.

I knew Nadejda Vlaeva would not disappoint from perusing her website and watching her videos. Her discography was impressive, her repertoire outstanding. All this research begged a final resolution — to see her live in concert.

She began the evening telling the story of how little known Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was during the romantic era. Camille Saint-Saens subscribed to his music and transcribed them for his piano students. These became known as Saint-Saens’ Bach transcriptions. In playing the selections, Nadejda made an orchestra out of the piano, ending the 6 piece set with the well-known Overture from Cantata No. 29.

Next she introduced another set of lesser known works. Hans von Bulow dedicated his Carnivale di Milano to a ballerina. The mark of a great pianist is one who makes a difficult piece sound simple, causing the audience relax and enjoy the music. Several people were nodding their heads and moving their bodies, dancing with the rhythmic pulse.

After the intermission, Nadejda shared the challenge of interpreting a piece that was written for her. “Most of the time, I have to choose something to play. But this time the piece chose me.” Lowell Liebermann’s Variations on a Theme by Schubert, Op. 100, began with that simple but melodious Rosaline. Each variation got a bit more adventurous. With that, she brought us to the 21st century.

But then she confessed. She still preferred the Romantic Era. The remaining 3 pieces and 2 encores took us back to that age of nostalgia.

I was probably the last person to get my CDs signed. “Chopin Works for Piano and Orchestra” will be a gift for my mother. “A Treasury of Russian Romantic Piano” contains her first encore — Rebikov’s Musical Snuff Box and her second encore, Liadov’s Prelude in B minor Op. 11 No. 1. I can’t wait to listen to them.

I once heard a fellow classical music connoisseur lament that winners of piano competitions didn’t do so well in intimate, private spaces like house concerts. They don’t train performers to tell stories or develop a rapport with their listeners. Audience engagement is a skill that takes practice. Today’s audience demands more.

Obviously Nadejda is a seasoned performer. She engaged the audience. She made us laugh. This explained the long queue after the concert.

I left at 11 pm, satisfied that the concert hosts were happy.

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Free concert for freeloaders

We arrived at the public library at exactly 2 pm, just when the concert was to begin. It was an old habit from my conservatory days —- never arrive too early to have to wait, but arrive just before it’s to begin. In this case, we had been cycling through colorful neighborhoods visiting open studios of artists. It was a beautiful sunny day, and giving up 1.5 hours (from our open studio journey) to a concert seemed almost a waste.

Except it was free. That made it worthwhile. The open studios were free. We even had a free lunch provided by one of the artists. Had it not been written in our plan, we would have skipped the piano concert and spent the rest of the afternoon on our bicycles.

There were many leaflets on the table in the concert hall. We grabbed the single A5 sheet program and the library newsletter.

A black grand piano stood on wheels on stage. From the sign “Please do not play the piano” it would appear that the piano lived there. It was not rented or brought into this space for the occasion. As a pianist, it’s my second nature to locate venues that have resident pianos, especially grand pianos.

A man welcomed us to the concert and announced the name of the pianist. We clapped and watched a young lady try to open a heavy door from the side. Out of courtesy and respect for the young pianist, we clapped until she arrived at the piano bench and bowed.

While she played, I started to hear other sounds.

The shuffling of paper.

The opening of candy wraps.

The sucking and popping of candies.

The movement of chairs.

When the music got louder, the ladies behind us started to talk. “Is this Chopin?”

I got so annoyed that I decided we should move our seats during the intermission. We waited. Just before the second half, we made a dash for the front row. We were no longer sitting in front of the candy-slurping ladies.

The second half was several decibels louder than the first half. Whereas the first half was lyrical, the second half was deliberately fast, furious, and intense. The audience sensed it. This gave some the license to talk, move, and annoy us even further. The lady behind us began to open, squeeze, and close her old plastic bag. I cringed.

The Korean pianist was excellent. She played selections from Albeniz, Grieg, Chopin, Tann, and Beethoven effortlessly. She even gave an encore of Chopin’s famous Scherzo. I couldn’t wait to talk to her after the concert.

The audience? I gave the audience an F. I couldn’t wait to get away.

But how could I possibly complain? It was a free concert after all. The audience could do as they please. I daresay this was probably the main reason I chose to organize concerts in my own home. Such audiences are not welcome. I set the rules.

No shoes.

No leaflets.

No candy wraps.

No plastic bags.

And you have to pay for the privilege of attending a house concert.

Boston: the mecca of brain candy and classical music

The brain candy of classical music is available in abundance in Boston, the highest concentration of institutions of advanced education.

I wrote on my Facebook that I was visiting Boston for classical music and brain candy. I timed my arrival so I could attend Robert’s solo guitar concert at the New England Conservatory. Little did I realize that Boston had the highest concentration of colleges and universities — and with that, brain candy.

My graduate school classmate Kathryn, who specialized in corporate governance after running several restaurants, coined the term “brain candy.” Our brains need topics to chew on. It’s more fun to share candies than chew alone.

Before Robert’s solo guitar recital began, I recognized someone from a distance. It was the composer Tom Peterson whose piano sonata I had played, recorded, and blogged about. I had last seen him in Phoenix in early November 2010. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona. What was he doing in Boston?

Before Phoenix, Robert and I had invited him to dinner in London where he was finishing his masters degree at the Royal College of Music. Before London, we had met, for the first time, in Cortona, Italy, in July 2007.

As it turned out Tom was in Boston to see the Celtics game that same evening. He had seen the announcement of Robert’s guitar concert on Facebook. He decided to surprise us. Actually he was in this part of the world for another reason — the premiere of a commissioned piano solo piece for the Fisher Prize in New Haven, Connecticut.

Tom, his tuba-player friend, Robert, and I convened at Uno Grill and Bar Restaurant after the recital. We chewed on music for brain candy. When we parted our ways, Robert and I went to yet another concert that day — a string quartet in Jordan Hall.

I don’t think I have had such an in-depth discussion of classical music, composition, and performance since last summer in Utrecht, Netherlands, where we made brain candy out of music.

I have forgotten what it’s like to travel via mass public transit and eavesdrop. In the Netherlands, I could not, but here in Boston I could. On the “T” which is also the oldest metro system in America, I overhear conversations among students, teachers, business people, and tourists. Sometimes I get the urge to join them. Maybe that’s how I’d get more brain candy!