Friends, music mix well at house concerts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Home is where the musical heart is. And a growing number of people are keeping homes in mind as places to hear great recitals.

The idea of holding concerts in private residences is flourishing across the country. Perhaps the most impressive group sponsoring these concerts is the AIDS charity Classical Action (www.classicalaction.org), directed by Charles Hamlen.

Over the past eight years, Classical Action has organized "house concerts" in Buffalo, N.Y.; Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; St. Louis; and Ann Arbor, Mich., among other places. Classical music stars such as violinist Joshua Bell, pianists Richard Goode and Evgeny Kissin, and singers Cecilia Bartoli, Thomas Hampson, and Dawn Upshaw have donated their time and talents.

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At home concerts, "attendees appreciate the thrill of hearing great artists perform in an intimate setting where it feels as though they're performing just for them and a few friends, as opposed to the large and more anonymous setting of a theater," Mr. Hamlen says.

Actually, chamber music was originally written to be played in private homes, not concert halls. Added to that can be the pleasure of ogling someone else's luxurious abode while listening to sweet sounds.

But even when the music and surroundings are humbler, the experience is equally pleasurable. A group called I'Onissimo! (www.awod.com/hamilton) plays free chamber music on house porches in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. "The intimate size of the space forces people close together and gives the music tremendous impact," says series director William Hamilton. "If you are sitting two feet from a cellist and can see every expression and every muscular exertion, you participate in the music in a way even the greatest concert hall does not make possible."

At a porch concert last September, "virtually no one was present three minutes before the concert began," Mr. Hamilton says. "Because there was no drive or parking problem, the audience left their homes only a minute or two before the performance and spent the time afterward socializing with neighbors.

"Once the music began to be heard across the lake and narrow streets of the neighborhood, others left their homes to come and listen, drawn by the music."

L'Onissimo concerts are open to "all who come with a civil respect for community," he says. The group spent a mere $1,721 for 10 concerts in 2001.

Hamilton, a lawyer, and his wife, Julia, opened their 2,000-square-foot home and accommodated an audience of 35 for chamber music concerts. While banana bread bakes in the kitchen, people "sit in the living room and just listen, but aren't actually in the room with the musicians," he says. "The whole house is open, and they can see down through the foyer to the musicians. They feel that the sound melds better in that part of the house."

Melissa Eddy, general manager of Salon Concerts, an Austin, Texas-based series of house events (www.hometown.aol.com/salonconcerts) says that early arrivers "get to claim the comfy sofa seating" but that even those who make do with folding chairs find themselves compensated by "hearing chamber music in the type of intimate residential setting for which most chamber music was originally composed."

The greatest challenge for her organization, Ms. Eddy says, is finding homeowners who have a room "large enough to hold five to eight musicians and up to 75 audience members, a concert-quality piano when the program requires it, and a willingness to have that many people in their home for two consecutive evenings...."

Eddy's series attracts loyal subscribers, and since the performances pay musicians "close to market rates ... booking them is not a problem."

More often, difficulties can arise from logistics or the kind of music performed: Hamlen says that although Classical Action has organized house concerts with jazz pianist Fred Hersch, a larger jazz event with piano, bass, and drums "would probably require too large a space to be practical.... When you get into pop and rock music, the intimacy factor is no longer valid."

Decidedly less cooperative was one neighbor of house concert organizer Rob Gordon of Colorado Springs, Colo. A devotee of folk music, Mr. Gordon invites friends in "a few times a year for concerts." A year ago, a neighbor called the municipal government to ask whether such events were in accord with Colorado Springs zoning laws. A city land-use inspector cited Gordon for running a "commercial venture" from his house and a trial ensued, with a decision in Gordon's favor last November.

During his battle with local authorities, Gordon discovered that his "art" was bringing people together and building community. "I can't play the guitar, and I can't sing, but I do have the talent to put on an event," he says.

Besides, folk-music shows are quieter than most parties, says Tim Blixt, who runs a Wayne, N.J.-based Cabin Concerts series in a log cabin (www.cabinconcerts.com). "Our fans are sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their property as well as ours. As for the idea of this being a business, we try to liken it to a Tupperware party – except that we don't make any money!" he says.

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