Reflections on our summer concerts
Listen Closely recently wrapped up its fifth annual summer concert series. Karen Dekker, Alex Fortes, Ana Kim, and I spent five days rehearsing at beautiful Avaloch Farm Music Institute in New Hampshire. After our residency, we returned to Inwood and performed five free concerts at Muscota Marsh, La Plaza de las Americas, the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, and Bruce’s Garden. It was a wonderful week of music making and community that reminded me why James and I dreamed up Listen Closely in the first place— and why we have continued to put in so many long days and late nights to keep it going!
It was a sweltering summer weekend (in the 90s, even approaching 100 on Sunday afternoon!) and we sweated through our outdoor performances. Alex dubbed it “Bikram chamber music”! In addition to the heat, we were playing in spaces that aren’t acoustically favorable to our instruments, where we often had to compete with street noise, passing airplanes, and barking dogs. The question begs to be asked, “Why play here?”
In spite of the drawbacks I have just enumerated, I would choose to play in Bruce’s Garden over Carnegie Hall any day. Being there truly cultivates community, intimacy, and accessibility, which are at the heart of Listen Closely’s mission.
These community concerts are designed to be the musical equivalent of public art. Even if an art museum offers free admission, you have to make the decision to go to the art museum and enter its hallowed doors, which can be quite intimidating in and of itself. Once you’ve made it inside the museum, you find yourself looking at objects through glass barriers. In contrast, a public mural is there in plain sight, and passersby can get up close and personal. You might walk past a mural in your neighborhood every day, seeing it in a slightly different light each time you encounter it. The artwork becomes part of the fabric of the neighborhood, the property of the people who live there, rather than something that is being handed to us from on high by a cultural institution. I believe that our interactions with art can be deeper and more personal when the artwork is removed from its typical environs in this way.
I hope to cultivate a similar experience for people with classical music. Listen Closely’s concerts take place in everyday community spaces, and people are welcome to come and go as they wish. There are a lot of informal conversations that happen between the musicians and the audience, and we try hard to keep the musicians on the same level as the audience members, rather than putting them up on a stage in fancy clothes. Many people stumble upon our concerts by accident. I love that someone could simply be doing their shopping or going for a run in the park, only to have a chance encounter with a great work of chamber music.
Community is a huge element, not only in the nature of the performances themselves, but also in our rehearsal and planning process. Our program, “Béla,” featured Béla Bartók’s Sixth String Quartet, alongside Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Children’s Pieces, two imaginative and improvisatory works by 18th century Romany violinists, and two Romany-influenced movements of Haydn string quartets. It was one of my favorite programs that Listen Closely has ever done, but I certainly can’t take credit for it!
Rather than being proposed by one or two people, this program developed through a series of conversations that the musicians had over shared meals and late-night sight reading parties earlier this spring. Everyone brought their own ideas (and their own delicious culinary offerings!) to the table. We created literal potlucks as well as a musical potluck, which turned into a program more interesting and diverse than one that any single person could have created.
Thanks to our residency at Avaloch Farm (for which we are so grateful!), we were able to rehearse together in a truly collaborative, open way without feeling rushed or pressured. In addition to many hours of rehearsal, we spent some great time eating, drinking, cooking, talking, listening to music and podcasts, and driving together. This quality time together led to a deeper trust and vulnerability in our music making, which is usually hard to achieve with the average freelance concert, when you are operating on limited rehearsal time.
Equally important were our collaborations with the fantastic Spanish interpreter Luis Lopez, who did so much to aid us in our communication and connection with Spanish-speaking neighbors, and the wonderful organization WHIN Music Project, who connected us with two very bright high school students who served as our interns for this project.
Inwood, thank you so much for coming out to hear this program! We loved seeing so many new and old faces at the concerts, and we are grateful for the many memorable conversations and encounters that we had with our neighbors.
Please stay tuned for news about Listen Closely’s plans for the late summer and fall— we have several exciting projects that we’re currently cooking up! If you’re not already on our mailing list, you can sign up here to receive email updates, and you can also follow us on facebook, twitter, or instagram. Keep in touch!