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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Concert booking and reservation in San Francisco

Dr Chong Kee Tan’s High Note Live, is a new kind of concert management system for booking artists, inviting guests, and confirming attendance. Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo used it for their loft apartment concert in San Francisco.

Our concert in a loft apartment in San Francisco was an experiment in a new kind of concert booking and reservation. The host and I used a bespoke web-based software under beta test to book the performers (our piano guitar duo), invite guests, interact, specify number of seats and amount of payment, and confirm through payment.

This web-based mechanism is called High Note Live conceptualised and developed by the multi-facetted and multi-talented Dr Chong Kee Tan.

From left: Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo with concert hosts Chong Kee Tan & Doug
From left: Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo with concert hosts Chong Kee Tan & Doug

How does one book an artist for a performance? How does one keep track of an artist’s popularity or reliability?

How does one invite guests and ensure they show up? How does one guarantee an artist a certain income before the concert begins?

How do different stake-holders in the run up to a concert track how many people are attending? In my 14-page paper (PDF) on “house concerts for art music,” I specifically describe the different stakeholders: owner of the concert venue, concert host, concert producer, performer(s), guests, collaborators, sponsors, patrons, etc. They each have their own interests and needs. A successful concert is one that meets everyone’s expectations.

From one perspective, producing a concert is a risky business. To remove the risk, the concert producers needs to ensure what is expected to happen will happen. Those people who said they wanted to come to the concert actually do. The performers would prefer to know beforehand whether the venue is filled and whether they will get paid what they expect. In essence, how does one get a peace of mind?

These were the questions that led Dr Tan to research the market for software that would help concert producers, be they house concerts or bigger venues, to achieve greater efficiency and minimise risk.

Loft concert in San Francisco
Loft concert in San Francisco

High Note Live removes the stress of tracking various e-mails between different counterparties, i.e. between the different stakeholders. In the week of our loft concert in San Francisco,  I saw the number of attendees go up until there were no seats left. What a great feeling!

Without such a central system, we resort to disparate ways to invite people to a concert: Facebook event (but not everyone is on Facebook and clicking ATTENDING does not oblige one to attend), LINKED-IN announcement, e-mail invitation, phone calls, face-to-face, and paper invitation.

The confirmation process is also iffy. People don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. How do you oblige someone to show up? Make them pay. Use it or lose it. That’s how airlines fill up their seats. That’s how concert halls fill up their theatres. An empty seat is a disappointment and a failure to fill it.

Watch this space for future updates to this new concert management system.