Hosting musicians in your home is an enduring tradition for good reason. For the price of a good seat at the symphony comes perhaps the best experience in classical music: sitting as close as possible to some of the city's best players in an opulent room with a view. The concerts finish with food and wine, no cleanup required.
Generally, the location is kept under wraps, revealed once you buy a ticket. One Sunday last month, e-mailed instructions from Salon Concerts led to a long private driveway in Westlake. A palatial Roman villa appeared, with a panoramic terrace overlooking the downtown skyline, the trees and homes of West Austin floating below.
Stepping in through glass doors revealed a decadent salon, framed by concrete columns and two floor-to-ceiling windows that opened onto the porch. Near the windows stood a Steinway grand, borrowed for the weekend.
Forty chairs ringed round the piano, and the organizers coordinated last-minute hiccups and greeted people as they walked through the front doors.
Tuba player Joanna Ross Hersey, from North Carolina, arrived eight months pregnant. "I made a long weekend out of it," she said. With a grinning smile and boisterous personality, Hersey was a delight as she took over the room. She introduced herself, and chatted throughout the show, explaining, for example, why we were about to hear three tuba solos.
Despite the setting, there's nothing formal about these occasions. Patrons wear relaxed clothes: khakis or dress pants with shirts, Sunday dresses. The musicians do the same, dressing up, but without great fuss.
And right from the start, the informality was charming. One of the players called for assistance after struggling to close the vintage patio doors. When Salon's treasurer arrived to shut them, they closed with a bang, which got a great laugh from the crowd.
Solo tuba made for an eccentric concert — the instrument vibrated like a subwoofer, resonating through the floor underneath your chair — but Hersey's playing was quite wonderful, often recalling a trumpet. Her selections, by the wives of (more) famous composers, such as Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, was clever programming, but also beautiful music. It was like a compelling exhibition of an unusual and endangered bird.
More astounding was Rebecca Henderson's oboe. With Colette Valentine on piano, their Saint-Saëns Sonata was charming, if for no other reason than the novelty of an oboe commanding a room. But with such "round" and lyrical playing, Henderson's oboe enveloped a space like this.
The space felt closer to Versailles than Austin, with black-and-white tile, elaborate rugs and domed skylights. The rooms had golden picture frames, chandeliers and fresh gladiolas on ornate plant stands. Even the kitchen's TV was framed.
It was an entirely different experience up close. The musicians' breathing was more intense, their bow was fierce and every little gesture was visible. "There's not any space," Henderson said with a grin, "so I make sure I clean between my toes."
There was no stage, no glaring lights, nothing at all to filter the crowd and players. But, level with the crowd, with elements that constantly wore away the fourth wall, the performers seemed wonderfully at ease in the room. Who can argue with such a setting? The gorgeous playing of Charles Martin Loeffler's "Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano," a beautiful and moving work inspired by a poem, was nicely set up by a little explanation before the trio began, as it swirled around the room.
By intermission, the valet guys were tossing a football around as people moved about to take phone calls, smoke cigarettes, find some water or walk about on the patio. A field of crape myrtle and palms lay below, a pool hidden in the trees.
Late in the second half, the sounds and smells of food wafted from the kitchen. And when the concert finished, the room next door was filled with fried crab cakes that were delicious and a little greasy, with a chipotle mustard. For dessert there were lemon, strawberry and chocolate tartlets, among other treats. Patrons mingled around, drinking wine, making conversation and obviously relishing the opportunity to thank the performers in person, ask them a question or two or describe a highlight of the show.
After the concert the players each praised the experience as something altogether more human and real. Modern recordings have a frigidity about them, says violist Bruce Williams; "They're not really human, they're perfect."
In contrast, these concerts embrace the experience of flawed, up-close playing. "It becomes an emotional experience for the audience," Henderson says, referring to the breaths and movements the audience sees. "I prefer it to the concert hall."
Henderson's sentiments certainly have historical precedent.
Originally a popular venue for the aristocracy of 19th-century European cultural capitals such as Paris and Vienna to see and be seen, salon concerts were the preferred setting for artists such as Chopin to make a personal connection with the audience, without the critics' watching eyes. They expanded all over Europe, becoming Sunday activities for the families of artists such as Mendelssohn and Liszt, often a place to explore new music, especially on the lighter or more romantic side.
In fact, the term "chamber music" came about to describe music written for the kind of small ensembles that typically played in palace chambers.
On Friday night, in the home of Gail and Jeff Kodosky, the handsome Steinway was being put to good use at one of Austin Chamber Music Center's Intimate Concerts. "I like the way she plays my piano," Kodosky said, explaining the benefits of hosting a pianist like Michelle Schumann, artistic director of ACMC. After attending house concerts, Kodosky appreciated their intimacy and liked the thought of bringing high-caliber music inside his home. Now the Kodoskys generally host a half-dozen concerts a year for different organizations.
The patrons, too, prize the intimacy of these shows. "You can really see the blood, sweat and tears of the performers," said Rosemary Alexander. Her husband, Bill, appreciates the chance to engage the players in conversation, recalling a chat with one performer about the workplace hazards of playing the violin.
Patrons here were given the option of name tags, a nice touch that made striking a conversation a pinch easier. "It's so different from the concert hall," says a name-tag-sporting Herb Schwetman, "Music is designed to be played with this kind of setting."
At the Kodoskys', Schumann accompanied soprano Hanan Alattar through a powerful evening of opera. This took some getting used to, with Alattar's booming voice at close range, pushing the air around a densely packed living room. But working through Barber, Wolf and (Robert) Schumann, it was easy to be moved by the myriad subtle facial movements and inflections present in her voice.
Here too, Schumann and Alattar relished the chance to give some background on each piece, casually describing a song's meaning, while sharing jokes and playfully riffing off each other's ideas. This loose atmosphere was comforting, and it connected the audience to each work.
When Alattar reappeared for an Italian aria, it was a joy to see her literally dance across the room, taking full advantage of these close quarters. In stunning Italian, she teased her suitor by flirting gently with a few men in the front row; an opera in miniature.
The line for the post-concert buffet was worth the wait, with little shrimp canapes, goat and blue cheese spreads, red and white table wine and delectable pumpkin pie tarts with Chantilly cream. Schumann and Alattar chatted up the crowd as they passed, answering questions and greeting friends. Later, patrons relaxed in the kitchen or chatted on chairs in the living room.
As the city grows, so do the groups hosting house concerts. It's easy to see why. They're as close as you could ever hope to be, with music that's consistently outstanding. Let's hear it for the long-awaited reunion of chambers and music.
Chamber groups hosting house concerts
Next house concert: The Aeolus Quartet and pianist Rick Rowley play Beethoven, Bartók and Schumann.
When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Monday
Next house concert: Annual Holiday Revel with Pat Harris, double bass, and Graeme Francis, percussion, playing holiday-related music
When:6 p.m. Dec. 18
Austin Chamber Music Center
Next house concert:Percussionist Graeme Francis and pianist Michelle Schumann play music by Bach, Glass, Pärt and Jarrett.
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7
Austin Classical Guitar Society
Next house concert: Austin Classical Guitar Society and the Heritage Society of Austin will launch the Guitar Salon concert series in historic homes in spring.