Eight years ago, I gave a paper on “house concerts for art music” to economists in love with music in Copenhagen. Today, Groupmuse is one of the grassroot initiatives that intermediates between artists and venue owners to realise such a concept. On Maui, I know of a clarinettist who produces these concerts from his home — always sold out. In and around Utrecht, I know of at least two. What are the issues that confront turning your private space into a concert venue for the public?
Audience development requires successful invitations to reach people who will say yes and mean what they say. How do you get to a “yes”?
I tell my students that taking a test is not like bingo. You have control over the situation, and you can get the result you want. It’s not a game of chance.
Similarly, when you invite someone to an event, be it a concert, a seminar, or anything that requires someone to think twice, think about giving up something else, you want the result to be a “yes” and not waste your time.
How do you get to a “yes”?
The way you ask is very important. Don’t give excuses to say no. You have to be engaging but not pushy.
Before you ask, think about what the person wants or needs. You may have to show that you know what he or she needs or at least understand it. You may have to identify what it is. How can you make it a win win situation?
For last two house concerts we organized in the Monument House, I thought of exactly that. How do get people to come to a concert in which the performers are not known in the Netherlands? In which the programme is not full of works that are well-known? In which people have plenty of other things to do, such as go on holiday to France and Spain?
Everybody has to eat. This is why it’s common to arrange meetings at lunch time. Provide food, and people will come. How about selling the appeal of a chef and exotic cuisine? Add organic wine tasting?
Maybe people are not saying “yes” to the food, the wine, or the concert. Maybe they simply like you, who gave the invitation. Maybe they just want to be inside a beautiful home, with excellent feng shui. Maybe they said “yes” because they know everybody else who said yes are as interesting as they are.
There are plenty of reasons why people will say “yes” to you.
Consider that it is difficult to refuse a compelling invitation.
Make an offer no one can refuse.
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.
Anne Ku met composer John Carollo in Cortona, Italy in 2006 and in Honolulu in 2011. Carollo’s Waltz written in 1986 evokes Satie and Debussy. Listen to a recording from the Netherlands.
On Sunday 3rd April 2011, while sightreading 81 short piano pieces entitled “80th Birthday Jingles” by the Honolulu-based composer John Carollo, I came across an old work of his from 1986. John, whom I first met in Cortona, Italy in July 2006, walked out of his kitchen and came towards me.
“I haven’t heard that in awhile.” He seemed caught off guard. Later, I learned that he had forgotten about this piece.
It was tonal music from his pre-serial days.
“Play it again,” he mused.
John had written this Satie-like waltz for his friend Bill whose surprise birthday party I had attended two nights earlier in a million dollar home in Hanepepe Loop. On Sunday in a penthouse in central Honolulu, we were just eating the leftovers from that executive chef-catered dinner when my playing of his Waltz evoked even earlier memories of his journey as a composer.
I liked it so much that I took it to Utrecht, Netherlands and recorded it on my grand piano on 4th August 2011.
Just yesterday afternoon I found the three of John’s CDs: the award-winning Ampersand, Starry Night for String Orchestra, and Transcendence in the Age of War. Now that I have time in Maui, I will listen to his works, although I have already heard one performed in my house on 1st July 2011. Pianist Nathanael May played his Prelude as the last piece of a set of five by the composers Antheil, Chopin, Gershwin, and Debussy as the opening to a house concert. (Programme 2-page PDF) It was well chosen before John Cage’s dream-like “In a Landscape.”
Immediately after I left Honolulu, John began composing a 9-movement work for my piano guitar duo. While we have not yet had time to rehearse the piece, I have already requested John to extend the second movement which is so addictive!
Born in Torino, Italy, John Carollo was brought to the U.S. by his adoptive parents. John took piano lessons and began composing his first piano works while at San Diego State University where he graduated with a Masters Degree in Psychology. Shortly thereafter, John moved to Honolulu, began a full-time mental health career for the State of Hawaii and started private composition lessons with Dr. Robert Wehrman. So great was his passion for composing that he quit his day job to compose full-time. Since then his works have been performed in Italy, Netherlands, and elsewhere. Website: http://www.johncarollocomposer.com
Robert Bekkers wrote the solo guitar work “Prelude for Anne” shortly after meeting Anne Ku in Amsterdam in 2001.
When I changed the generic title of the mp3 file to “Prelude in d” while preparing the last blog post, the file list automatically reordered alphabetically in itunes. Just above the newly renamed file was “Prelude for Anne.”
Listening to it brought back memories of my early days with Robert Bekkers, who wrote and played the guitar solo piece for me.
It was the first time anyone had composed a work dedicated to me. I am pretty sure of that. I was not only flattered but genuinely taken by it. I suppose it’s like receiving a love letter, a love poem, or a gift that is totally original and unique. Such is the gift of music — a composition written for a person and dedicated to that person.
Shortly after I met Robert in Amsterdam, I organized a small house concert in my home in London in April 2001 in which Robert played several solo pieces. I cannot remember for sure if he included this prelude as I did not mention it in my blog. Nor did I list it in the subsequent house concerts.
Somehow I do recall a premiere and several performances. But when and where?
Would this blog post jog his memory? Or inspire him to find the sheet music?
Independent third party reviewers or previewers act as external validation which is great for publicity for house concerts and salon concerts.
House concerts, salon concerts, private concerts …. these are all live music gatherings in someone’s home which can be one-off, ad hoc, or occur at a regularity that can be labeled a concert series.
Over the years I have attended, performed, and produced many such events in the UK, Netherlands, and the USA. One topic I neglected to mention in my paper “House Concerts for Art Music” is external validation. In some ways external validation doubles up as publicity.
External validation, loosely defined, is having someone else put a stamp of approval on what you do. When I worked as a magazine editor, I received a lot of enquiries from new product vendors and service providers who wanted to tell me about their business. If I wrote something about it, I would be giving them publicity and a seal of approval. For this reason, concert reviewers are very important for performers and concert producers.
In my years of producing house concerts, I have never succeeded in getting a local newspaper to come and review a concert. In hindsight, these concerts, although open to the public, might have been too private for the space was small and the occasion “one-off.”
Publicity and public endorsement would make it easier to market the next concert. I wondered if other concert producers felt the same about the need for external validation. Short of getting a reviewer or previewer, I asked my guests to sign guestbooks and send in their comments which I could use to market the next concert.
Recently I read an article about Margaret Sewell’s Salon Concerts in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although I have never met Margaret or attended her concerts, her invitations were so compelling that I decided to write about concert invitations in a blog post. Reading the article about her concert series made me even more curious — a different experience from visiting her lovely website.
Solution? Get to know journalists and writers who love to attend salon concerts. I am one of those. Unfortunately I am not independent enough to write about my own concerts for external validation.
Music that is easy to play and nice to listen to characterises the solo piano works of Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur. Daniel’s Song is an example, played and recorded by Anne Ku in Utrecht, Netherlands.
During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands this past summer, I took out sheet music I had collected for years to choose ones worth taking with me to Maui. Some of these pieces were so enjoyable to play that I decided to record them.
I was searching for music that’s easy to play and nice to listen to.
Contrary to what you may believe, it’s not easy to write music that is easy to play. It’s harder still to write music that’s nice to listen to but not boring after the first time. Good music, I sincerely believe, gets appreciated each time it’s played. It grows on you.
Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur is a pianist and piano teacher who has the benefit of observing how her students read and study her compositions. She has written numerous solo and chamber works that involve the piano. I was fortunate to discover her music quite early in what-I-now-call my Dutch era — a decade of infatuation with the Netherlands.
I performed her Prelude in d minor and fugue at a concert in Bussum, a village east of Amsterdam, in 2002. I had also introduced her Tango for violin, cello, and piano to my house concert in London and her piano duets to the Monument House Concert Series and a sightreading workshop prior to our piano guitar duo concert in San Francisco. Heleen has also written “Fire” for our piano guitar duo, which we premiered in Spain in 2010.
In the “V” section of my music library, I discovered yet more short works for solo piano that she had given me.
“Daniel’s Song” met my criteria of easy to play and nice to listen to. I decided to record it on my Steinway.