Earlier this year the virtuosic Japanese-American violinist Shunské Sato, who has performed with major orchestras across the US and Europe, made his London début. Ordinarily you might expect an artist of his calibre to perform at, say, the Barbican or Festival Hall. Indeed, when Sato next plays here, it will be at Cadogan Hall, which has a capacity of nearly 1,000. Last April’s concert, however, took place in the elegant and expansive drawing room of Sir Vernon Ellis’s London home before an invited audience of 100 or so friends, philanthropists and figures from the music world.
For those privileged enough to be there, it was a rare chance to hear chamber music in the sort of intimate setting for which it was intended. For the soloist, it was an opportunity to try out a fiendishly exacting programme, culminating in Paganini’s showstopper Moto Perpetuo, which he had never previously attempted before an audience. (How we applauded Sato’s panache and bravura speeds.) And for the Academy of Ancient Music, the orchestra in whose aid the event had been organised, and whose music director, Richard Egarr, also performed, it was a platform from which to launch its 2011/12 season of concerts and an appeal to raise £75,000 towards underwriting it.
Best known for his longstanding role as international chairman of Accenture, Sir Vernon Ellis is one of the UK’s leading supporters of the arts, with gifts totalling more than £7m in recent years, and was knighted “for services to music” in this year’s New Year’s Honours. He was inspired to start hosting concerts at home, he says, principally by the idea of being able to give performers a platform early in their careers – an opportunity to play before a responsive audience. But it was also a way to enable arts organisations to fundraise. Some will ask for a donation; occasionally there’s an auction; sometimes it’s just about building relationships. “Nobody gets paid,” says Ellis, “because that would introduce all sorts of other considerations, including tax. It’s just a home event. The only criterion is that it has to be doing some good.”
He mentions a recent concert by the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, who was preparing for a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. “We’d also been approached to do a fundraiser for a cancer charity, and we asked Alexandra if she’d mind if we invited their supporters [as opposed to the more usual audience of Ellis’s friends and contacts]. The charity was very energetic about inviting people and got more than 100 to come, about 80 per cent of whom had never been to a classical piano recital. And it blew their minds: the sheer quality, the fact that she could remember two hours of music because, of course, she played without a score...” So these concerts, he says, are win-win events, benefiting artists, audiences – even building new ones – and generating funds.
Ellis, who is also chair of the British Council, sits on numerous boards, including that of the Leopold Trust, which supports the activities of the Leopold String Trio, where his fellow trustees include Bob Boas, former MD of the investment bank SG Warburg, who, with his wife, Elisabeth, has been hosting private concerts at their London home for the past decade.
“When our youngest son, Nicholas, died in 1998, we sold the flat we had bought for him and used the proceeds to endow a trust in his memory,” says Boas. “The first project was to give travel scholarships to architectural students, particularly those at the Architectural Association where Nicholas was a student, to spend a month at the British School at Rome, where he’d spent part of his gap year.” The Boases also decided to sell the family home, which “was full of sad memories” and move into central London, ideally to somewhere “with a room big enough for a string quartet to play to friends”. The result was a two-floor apartment in a neoclassical house designed by Robert Adam. The first-floor drawing room measured almost 15m x 8m, with a 5.5m-high ceiling. “It seemed an extraordinary opportunity to more or less swap our old house for this spectacular space, which can comfortably sit up to 75 and turned out to have an almost perfect acoustic.
“I then had the idea that we should have concerts by young musicians whom we wouldn’t pay. Instead, we’d ask those who came to hear them to give to the trust, which in turn would help musicians by sponsoring them for masterclasses.” In some months they host as many as 10 concerts, often in aid of organisations that support young musicians. The calibre of the artists, from soloists to chamber orchestras such as Manchester Camerata and the Gabrieli Consort, is invariably outstanding, and the breadth of repertoire eclectic. Last May, for example, they included a saxophone concert in aid of the Presteigne Festival and a run-through of a recital of mostly 18th- and 20th-century piano music that Maria Marchant was shortly to give at Wigmore Hall – “A dry run, if you like,” says Boas. “It’s much more valuable for a musician to play in front of an audience than to rehearse in private, and our main objective is helping musicians.”
There’s no shortage of musicians glad of an opportunity to perform in such sympathetic surroundings, especially if their owners sit on as many boards as Boas and Ellis. So “organising an audience is, in fact, a greater challenge than arranging a programme,” Boas says. “It’s done by an e-mailed mailing list, and friends are welcome to bring friends.”
Those attending are asked to make a contribution to cover the cost of the post-concert supper or drinks. “Additional donations to the trust itself are optional but much appreciated”, and are used “to support the development of students of visual and musical arts at the start of their professional careers”. In total, it gives away about £40,000 a year. “These concerts have now rather taken over our lives,” he says. “But they are far and away the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done. It’s widened our circle of friends and created relationships with many exceptional young artists.”
It is, though, possible to enjoy concerts at home more informally. In Hampstead, north London, Florian Leonhard, a leading dealer and restorer of violins, hosts recitals for audiences of 40 to 50, a mix of friends, clients and professional contacts (pictured above: Rebecca Greenstreet on violin with Simon Lane on piano performing at Leonhard’s home). “I know a lot of lawyers and people in the City who like to come after work and listen to music here,” says Leonhard – some of whom make up the syndicates that buy violins as investments and lease them to rising artists. Recently a number of his concerts have been in aid of good causes: the charity Fight for Sight, victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But mostly, he holds them solely for the benefit of artist and audience.
“I always liked the idea of the 19th-century salon, a place where intellectuals could meet up and discuss things and enjoy music together,” he says. “And I felt that by hosting concerts I could make a contribution to London’s music scene by introducing artists to audiences close up, so creating small fan clubs for them.” And no wonder, for some very renowned violinists have played chez Leonhard, among them Nicola Benedetti, Alina Ibragimova, So-Young Yoon and Elena Urioste, who is one of three holders of the first London Music Masters awards, a triennial award scheme intended to support “exceptional” violinists under 28 in forging international careers and also to provide tuition in primary schools in deprived parts of London. Though all three LMM award-holders have thriving international careers, performing regularly with major symphony orchestras, each is actively involved in the schools workshops and each also has experience of performing in private concerts.
Last summer, ahead of her début appearance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Festival Hall, the young Polish violinist Agata Szymczewska delighted a small invited audience in the art-filled Kensington sitting room of American-born Victoria Sharp (who used to work for Goldman Sachs), founder and chief executive of LMM. “I’m a big fan of playing in private houses,” says Szymczewska.
“It feels much more comfortable; I find it easier to relax, even though the audience is so close.”
Victoria Sharp has been thrilled by the experience of hosting concerts. Last year the eminent fortepianist Melvyn Tan and the Skampa Quartet performed the Dvorák Quintet before an audience of 30 at her home, a run-through for a concert at Wigmore Hall. “I was tingling, hearing it at home,” she says. “It made the hairs on my arms stand up. The dynamic between the artists and audience is totally different in a domestic space.”
As well as staging recitals at home, Sharp has collaborated in organising larger events at Vernon Ellis’s house, recently a recital by the violinist Jennifer Pike (pictured on opening pages), a former BBC Young Musician of the Year, currently an undergraduate at Oxford University and the third LMM award holder, to raise money for the charity. “We didn’t charge admission,” says Sharp, “but we asked for donations if people wished to make them, and from an audience of perhaps 120, we raised £9,000. That’s the cost of a year or more’s music tuition for a class of 30-plus children; or 100 half-size violins.” It was also, she adds, all profit. “We didn’t really have any costs: we made the canapés ourselves, and the wine was donated. So everything we raised went straight back. How nice is that?”
It was a “very lovely experience”, too, for Pike, still only 22, but already a veteran of such events, because they have proved an invaluable way of raising funds to enable her to play a 1708 Gofriller violin, which belongs to a trust. “There’s a real feeling of rapport,” she says of playing in private houses. “If you’re miles away from the audience on a very high stage, you’re desperately trying to reach out to them, so it’s much easier in a space like Vernon Ellis’s. It’s definitely more intimate. But you do have to play in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the space. I try not to deafen the audience.”
Ask any musician about such an experience, and they’ll use the word “rapport”, for live music is to a great extent about communication. “One of the things about being a conductor is that you have your back to the audience the whole evening, which – quite apart from anything – is very rude,” says Ian Page, founder of the Classical Opera Company, which has a remarkable record for identifying promising singers at the start of their careers and developing them. It gets no public subsidy, “so we’re reliant on connecting with individuals,” he says; and recitals of arias in private houses are an effective way of doing this, not least because he’s able to talk to them at the drinks reception before the performance and, usually, supper after. He cites the example of a concert they performed in the home of one of their trustees, near Canterbury. Though there were only about 50 people present, their next public performance in Kent, at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, was all but sold out.
“We were amazed we got such a big audience,” says Page. “I’m sure it was down to the fact not just that this one trustee had put the word about, but that his friends had too, so that by the time we came to a public performance, we had an established following in the area.” More than that, he says, “It’s nice occasionally to get away from the sanctified nature of recitals in the Wigmore Hall tradition, to have an element of informality and a sense that one is among friends. There have been concerts we’ve given in people’s homes where it’s felt a little bit like being at Esterháza [the Hungarian palace home of the Esterházy princes who were Haydn’s great patrons]. There’s been a real sense of what life for a musician in Haydn’s time must have been like.”
And what it would have been like for audiences too.
In light of the vogue for “authentic” experiences and hearing music performed according to historically informed performance practice, it was only a matter of time till the desire to hear it in an authentic setting became fashionable too. For where better to hear chamber music than in a chamber – a comfortable, intimate drawing room where you can see the pianist’s and violinist’s hands and faces, and they can see you?
And if opening one’s home in this way can be leveraged to raise money too, then so much the better. Let’s hope it presages the new era of philanthropy both the government and the arts are banking on.