ZURICH – An elegant estate, perched on a hill above the city of Zurich, is surrounded by surveillance cameras and a large steel gate. A housekeeper comes to open the gate. Inside is a hidden paradise: a stately tract with large terraces nestled sweetly in the mountainside. Rhododendrons bloom. A gardener tidies up a row of rose bushes.
Somewhere else on the property, another group is at work --although unlike the busy gardener, they are more easily heard than seen. Tucked away in the estate’s basement, the Amar Quartet is practicing for its next concert. Basement is a bit of an understatement. In terms of space and elegance, the room has more in common with a concert hall. Which is why Anna Brunner, the violinist and co-founder of the award-winning ensemble, says that being able to use it on a regular basis is a “godsend.” Sometimes the Amar Quartet even plays here before a small crowd of guests.
Such a thing is not unheard of in some of the wealthy mansions around Zurich, which support a vibrant subculture of intimate, private concerts. Living rooms become concert halls. Grandma's clothing rack becomes a cloakroom. In this close setting, careers can even be shaped. “Sometimes our next gig comes from a conversation with an audience member,” says Brunner.
So how do house concerts work exactly? First, participants are invited by someone who has both an affinity for music, and a living room big enough to accommodate an audience, a piano and/or a string quartet. The guest list is therefore limited, making private concerts very exclusive and thus more fashionable. But it doesn’t mean that the atmosphere is stuffy or elitist: instead of following out-dated rules of etiquette, guests tend to behave rather casually, making the concerts very convivial.
The salon-scene revisited
Take the Albers Family. Their living room, spacious, frescoed, and adorned with lyre-playing cherubs, is regularly filled up with concert-goers. But not just any concert-goers. Barbara Albers wants her circle to become better acquainted with artists, so she often approaches musicians, operating as a discrete promoter. If an up-and-coming young pianist from Russia is playing at the Albers house, chances are there will be an artistic director from a major musical institution among the guests.
In this sense her concerts retain some of the luster of the aristocratic salon gatherings that were popular around Zurich in the late 19th century, when concerts at the Villa Wesendonck would draw prestigious guests the likes of Richard Wagner, Hans von Bulow or Franz Liszt. But unlike those performances, which were reported on by the city’s daily newspapers, Barbara Albers’ concerts are not see-and-be-seen affairs. She doesn’t want Gucci or Prada to take the lead spot. There's room for that at the premiers of big concert halls, but not in her living room. At the Albers', young musicians take center stage, and she is there to promote them.
Like Ms. Albers, Eve and Walter Landis regularly host concerts in their home, which the couple designed specifically for that purpose. Eve, a trained musician, is responsible for the artistic part: selecting musicians and designing concert programs. Walter is the “layman,” his wife jokes. Fortunately, he’s happy to take on the “simpler” tasks, such as moving the piano or cleaning up after guests – often as many as 80 – have gone. Overall, the couple has hosted more than 150 private performances.
But even though their gatherings attract politicians, artists and other social luminaries, Eve does not see the musical evenings as elitist events. “We have also organized concerts where the whole community was invited,” she says. Eve and Walter say the greatest success for them is when a house musician – sometimes even a street performer whom Eve invited to play at their home – benefits from the recitals to gain professional recognition. In some cases performers have gone on to be famous.
Mixing with the guests
Christopher Scheffelt, like his colleagues in the Amar Quartet, has already been invited into many mansions to play music. And although the young concert pianist has played on some pretty big stages, private houses concerts means something special to him, Scheffelt says. He feels “at home” there. That sense of belonging transpires in his music. In these intimate settings, Scheffelt is able to bring a palpable intensity even to the most technically challenging pieces.
The audience comes mostly from the upper stratum of society. It's a world of luxury, one that is still largely stranger to Scheffelt and Brunner. This doesn't seem to bother the musicians, though. The talented pianist feels that as an artist, he is "privileged anyway."
In his day, Franz Liszt felt very differently. In the Parisian salons, he was merely a “source of entertainment for distinguished companies.” He did not belong with them, and he mocked them. Liszt wrote about how artists were humiliated, and treated as staff members.
This no longer appears to be the case. Scheffelt says he is also able to chat with guests – a taboo in the concert hall. For Anna Brunner, this closeness to the audience is important. Equally important is the opportunity she is given at house concerts to try new things. Scheffelt has noticed another amusing trend at house concerts: female guests often develop an instinctive interest in his piano, while male guests are usually interested in Anna’s violin.
Read the original story in German
Photo - Ethan Woods