House Concerts: Small Is Beautiful

February 19, 2013

On a warm, starry evening last week, Katherine and Roy Bukstein opened their spacious Hillsborough home to bolster an endowment for second-prize winners of the California Music Center’s (CMC) annual Irving M. Klein String Competition. Some three dozen folks from all over the region got to attend this contemporary version of a vital tradition dating back as long as chamber music itself. But did house concerts always sound and taste this good back then?

Cellist Matt Allen and pianist Yannick Rafalimanana perform at the Buksteins' house concert in Hillsborough. Photo by Jeff Kaliss

Greeted at the door by Katherine, an amateur violist, guests were invited to mingle and converse, and then sample a delectable buffet prepared by the CMC’s executive director, Fred Spitz, washed down by select California wines. Attention moved on to the Bukstein living room, for an equally delicious musical offering by cellist Matthew Allen, the Klein second-prize winner in 2011, with pianist Yannick Rafalimanana. After the performance, there was dessert and dialogue to be shared with the performers, plus an informal reading of Brahms by a quartet including the hostess. Yes, house concerts make music fun.

“It’s about taking off the stage lights and just experiencing the music together,” commented Allen. Indeed, the small crowd, airy setting, and proximity to the music made it as easy for the exotic accents of Allen’s articulation of Bartók and Kodály to tingle the eardrums as it had been for Spitz’s braised brisket and kale and brussels sprouts salad to tantalize the taste buds.

House concerts have been enjoying something of a revival. Former hedge fund manager George Hecksher had hosting them in mind when he started house hunting in 1998, after returning to San Francisco from New York City. “I wanted to re-create a salon atmosphere that one might have found in Vienna or London in the 19th century,” Hecksher reveals. “I’d been to the Mozart houses in Austria, and one of my [other] inspirations was the Morgan Library and the Frick Museum [in New York].” Hecksher and his wife settled on and into a Pacific Heights residence built by former Opera Association President Kenneth Monteagle, who’d incorporated “a music room with a place for a grand piano, a nice large room that fit my dream perfectly.”

Yuja and Jonathan, Honing Their Craft

Sergei Chelakov (right) entertains his fellow musicians/contractors at the site of a new house concert series hosted by J.J. Hollingsworth (in red dress). Photo by Jeff Kaliss Hecksher then began scouting student talent at the San Francisco Conservatory. “I’d approach them, or their mother or father, and explain what I was doing. Of course, no one ever said no, because that’s what musicians need the most: more places to play for appreciative audiences,” he remarks. An encounter with Roberto Diaz, incoming head of the Curtis Institute, expanded Hecksher’s “bookings” to include students from Philadelphia. “The first person Roberto sent me was Yuja Wang,” Hecksher recalls with a chuckle. “I think she was 17, and people didn’t know who she was. And the second person he sent me was Jonathan Biss. That was my niche: to find ‘starving’ students in school, looking to earn a few bucks and get some experience, and people who hadn’t been picked up by major management and were having a struggle to get jobs. It’s where I could add value to the whole scene.”

Notice about house concerts may go out through widespread publicity, via social media, or by invitation only, depending on the arrangement. In Hecksher’s case, reports of his good taste and hospitality, which included a Steinway Hamburg grand piano for performers and quality food and drink for guests, pushed his series a bit beyond his control. “The guest list started out with just friends, and then word-of-mouth went crazy, and I began quickly to have the problem of more people wanting to attend than I had room for. A lot of people said they’d never experienced anything like that, and how much better it was than the Symphony [Hall], what a great time it was, please invite me back.” After seven years, presenting one or two concerts a month from September to June, Hecksher decided to take a break to spend more time with his high school daughter.

Ellen Lapham got acquainted with hosting house concerts three decades ago, in the course of pursuing a lucrative career with Syntauri, a Palo Alto manufacturer of early computer-linked musical systems. She later put the concerts to the purpose of raising funds for the CMC and the Klein Competition, which “emphasized the intimate side of the music and not just the blockbuster side of it.” The intimate social setting accorded with “my basic premise: that musicians are people, and that a lot of what they enjoy is not just performing and interacting with other musicians, but interacting with people who are there to listen to the music.”

When she relocated to her current home in Nevada City, Lapham passed CMC/Klein hosting responsibilities on to her Peninsula home’s new occupants, Bill Clancey and Danielle Fafchamps, who were succeeded by Nancy Quinn and Tom Driscoll, residents of San Francisco’s Monterey Heights neighborhood.

Support for the Cause: Concerts for Performance Organizations

Nancy Quinn and Tom Driscoll in their Monterey Heights home, one of the most active local locations for house concerts and other arts events. Photo by Jeff Kaliss Driscoll, a lawyer, serves on the boards of several arts groups and of the San Francisco State University Foundation; and Quinn, as a consultant to midsize arts organizations, finds plenty of people eager to place events at her and Driscoll’s large and well-appointed domicile. The couple began by hosting Menahem Pressler during his appearance with Midsummer Mozart in 2000. (The famed virtuoso fell in love with their Hoffman grand piano, not to mention the window view of the Pacific from its bench.)

They later opened their downstairs bedroom and bath to young Klein competitors from elsewhere (among them violinist Tessa Lark, recently profiled in SFCV) and started hosting concerts by returning Klein winners. Driscoll and Quinn have similarly accommodated the American Bach Soloists, Noe Valley Chamber Music, San Francisco Choral Artists, Tyrolean Opera, the Singer’s Gym, and the Conspirare Choir, and have hosted wine tastings for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the awards ceremony for Theatre Bay Area, a birthday party for the Alexander Quartet’s Paul Yarbrough, and performances of jazz, rock, and dance.

“People come in, and we invite them down here,” says Driscoll, guiding a visitor past the Hoffman and down a short stairway, into a wine cellar he excavated out of the hillside. “What I typically do, I stand over here and talk about the wines and let them taste.” This can happen before or after the performance upstairs, where there may also be food.

“This is living! It is really the opportunity to hear chamber music the way it grew.” –American Bach Soloists’ Board Member Rick Boyer

“But there are rules,” Quinn points out. “The board [of the arts organization] has to be very involved, it can’t be staff-driven, and they need to meet with me first. I get them to figure out what kind of event they want: Is it donor-cultivation, ticketed, or a thank-you for hundred-dollars-and-up donors? I tell people that the goal is for people to have such a good time that the next time you invite them, they’re gonna come, and bring some friends.”

Feedback to the hosts has been satisfying, Quinn confirms. “The line I steal from Rick Boyer, who’s on the board of American Bach Soloists, is, This is living! It is really the opportunity to hear chamber music the way it grew.

The View From the Hot Seat: Musicians Respond

Chamber musicians themselves react similarly. Bettina Mussumeli, first violinist of the Ives String Quartet, had her first experience of house concerts while living in Europe with her ensemble and life partner, violist Jodi Levitz. “You get to play sometimes in Venetian palaces, and that’s truly where it was meant to be played,” says Mussumeli. “Especially when you talk about Mozart and Haydn and Boccherini and those guys, it was played among friends, and that’s how they got to know each other’s music; that’s how the music was originally distributed.”

Mussumeli admits to having at first been intimidated, during her forays into house concertizing in Europe, by “being three feet from the audience. As musicians today, we’re trained to project to the back of a big hall, often without good acoustics, and that kind of sound production is completely different from what you do in a small situation.” Mimi Lee, pianist with the BELLA Piano Trio, talks of similar “nerve-wracking” challenges, which she contrasts with “playing in a larger venue like a concert hall, when the lights are dimmed and you don’t see any particular faces.”“The guest list started out with just friends, and then word-of-mouth went crazy.” –House Concert Impresario George Hecksher

Yet both these musicians have come to favor the advantages of house concerts. The Ives has appeared in cellist Tanya Tompkins’ Benvenue House Music series, at homes in Berkeley and Mill Valley, and in the Ives’ own Music in Context Salon Series, at a Palo Alto home. In the give-and-take over refreshments, “A lot of people talk about the difference of performance in a smaller venue,” Mussumeli reports. “They talk about being that close to that much energy (which makes me smile), and about being able to see into the workings of the group much better. They see how we communicate, how we lean into each other, and they see the little smirks when something didn’t go quite right. It’s inviting them much more to be participants.”

The Ives has brought in UC musicologist Derek Katz to illuminate the topics of their Salon Series, which on March 3 will consider “How did Tchaikovsky adapt to writing string quartets, where his gift for melody might not be enough to carry the day?”

Lee estimates that 30 to 40 percent of her performances with the BELLA Trio occur as house concerts, several of them at a patron’s home at San Francisco’s highest residential elevation, atop Twin Peaks, where they’ll be this Saturday, Feb. 23. “There’s something very intimate and personal in how we can connect with the audience,” says Lee about these events. “People watch the dynamic between us, hear the sounds we’re making, and become part of that musical conversation. There’s stuff that happens, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes despite the best planning — we adjust and respond to that, and I think the audience is sensitive to when that kind of thing is happening. It makes house concerts really exciting.” Ives Quartet Salon focused on "Patronage" and the importance of people supporting art and the places where they shared it

Both these chamber ensembles relish the opportunity to both engage and educate aficionados. “With a Mozart or a Haydn quartet, we can play it the way we were taught back at Juilliard [School], and then do it the way Philharmonia Baroque would do it, and show the difference in sound,” says Mussumeli. “And some of the more modern pieces, like the Schulhoff string quartet, we’ll talk about how one creates an understandable language within the boundaries of atonality. When you give people a road map, they’re not intimidated any more by modern music.”

“We try to bring in our personalities, style, and sound, and explain what about that music speaks to us,” adds Lee. “In the Piazzolla Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, where you can feel you’re in Argentina on a summer’s day, we’re trying to stretch certain notes out to give it that elasticity. If we can demonstrate that, it kind of demystifies things.”

“People talk about being close to that much energy, and about being able to see into the workings of the group much better. They see how we communicate, how we lean into each other.” –Ives Quartet Violinist Bettina Mussumeli

With her M.D.-Ph.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a bunch of avocations, Lee also cherishes the opportunity to converse with her diverse audiences, “where all my worlds collide into each other, making everything feel more human. Sharing common interests in music or neuroscience or medicine or yoga, it’s inspiring, and I guess it makes me feel not so alone.”

Growing interest in chamber music among younger musicians has helped spawn house concerts across the U.S., including composer Andrea Clearfield’s 25-plus-years’ series in Philadelphia. Mimi Lee attended a few such events in her native New York, but has found that “It’s much easier to get that person-to person human connection here — people have less of a guard up, and because the Bay Area is smaller, it feels less anonymous.” Other local hosts have included composer Gordon Getty; his Pacific Heights neighbor George Hecksher may revive his own popular series after his daughter departs for college.

A Composer Sets the Stage

Meanwhile, composer J.J. Hollingsworth is preparing for the first-ever concert in the large three-level home she recently acquired in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, with an inheritance from the sale of her late father, Vade’s, cattle ranch in Colorado. Hollingsworth has long dreamed of playing host, after having to settle for sharing small rented apartments with her husband and producing a series at the too-large Temple United Methodist Church. Chancing on a property for sale, she walked in and immediately envisioned an elevated stage and seating area in what used to be the dining room and living room, adjoining a kitchen where hors d’oeuvres and beverages could be prepared.

She hired a construction crew, which proved capable not only of renovating her property and crafting a handsome, comfortable space for house concerts, but also of appearing on the new stage. “Most of them are musicians,” beams Hollingsworth, introducing the crew. “Stefen Habekoss is a luthier, Ricardo Nuñez plays guitar and piano, and Mike Salerno is a guitarist and record collector,” as well as a set builder for the Golden Gate Opera. Her series will launch with another crew member, Sergei Chelakov, singing and playing Ukrainian, Russian, and original songs on March 10 and 16. Future concerts will showcase Hollingsworth’s original opera, Pomp and Circumstances, and she’s extending invitations to such musician friends as soprano Ellen St. Thomas, flautist Gail Edwards, and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington.

Among the delights of house concerts Hollingsworth will celebrate, besides entertaining neighbors and old and new friends under her own roof, are that “I can have control over whether my Mathushek piano is tuned. And if I get just a few dozen people, I can feel like I have a full house.”

Mary Falvey provided invaluable contact assistance for this article. You can reach J.J. Hollingsworth to learn more her series at [email protected].

Jeff Kaliss has written about opera and other classical forms for the Marin Independent-Journal and The Oakland Tribune. He is based in San Francisco, and also covers jazz, world music, country, rock, film, theater, and other entertainment. The second edition of his authorized biography of Sly & the Family Stone was published by Backbeat Books.