As a hush falls on the audience, violist Heather Bentley raises her bow to glide into a slow, haunting cello line. Part of Trio Pardalote, she’s playing a concert of mid-20th-century chamber music in Seattle.
But it’s not your average gig. There are no program notes, seat numbers, or even tickets. The audience — 11 people — are lounging on armchairs and floor cushions in a West Seattle apartment, sipping drinks and taking occasional video with their phones. The most unusual thing? The entire concert was organized through social media: a platform called Groupmuse that intends to take chamber music back to its casual, living-room roots.
“We all need live music, and the Groupmuse model … is our attempt at research and development in how to bring music to people in a way that’s inclusive, meaningful and full of heart,” says Bentley.
Groupmuse is about taking chamber music off the stage and bringing it back to where it was originally written for.
Sarah Davis, Groupmuse musician and board member
As a musician — she’s principal viola with Tacoma’s Northwest Sinfonietta — Bentley is not shy about trying new things. She’s constantly playing new music, her trio has produced 14 club concerts in three years, and she’s a founding member of Seattle’s new conductorless North Corner Chamber Orchestra, which handles its own organization and promotion.
So Groupmuse was a logical step. Founded three years ago by a Boston Symphony Orchestra musician, the idea of house concerts of classical chamber music organized on a social media platform has spread to New York, San Francisco and, in the last year, Seattle. Run by just six people, it’s organized more than 1,200 house concerts and recently made $140,000 on Kickstarter. It’s seen fully produced operas and “Rite of Spring” dance parties as well as chamber music concerts.
But mostly, what Groupmuse does is connect music lovers and musicians. Via the website, folks interested in hosting concerts in their homes, garages, backyards or vineyards can sign up. Musicians like Bentley can make a group page and “bid” to play at a concert, and the host decides which group will play. The event is created and publicized via email and social media. Audience members sign up on Groupmuse with a photo, biography and contact details, and wait to be “approved” by the host. A day beforehand, they receive the host’s address, and show up to the concert with a drink to share and a suggested donation for the musicians (cash, or credit via the app).
The result, as with the Trio Pardalote concert Jan. 31, is an intimate encounter with both classical music and other people that love it.
“This is the social magic of Groupmuse,” Bentley says, “putting like-minded chamber music lovers together, and especially appealing to a younger generation who are on record as being more interested in arts events that have a celebratory, social feel.”
The Trio Pardalote concert was definitely social, albeit in a restrained, Northwest way. I arrived at the apartment with several other concert-goers, and we all politely introduced ourselves in the elevator. A note on the door asked us to let ourselves in. We wandered down the hall to where host Greg Miller was shyly greeting people. As the musicians warmed up, we helped ourselves to drinks in the kitchen, making small talk and chatting with violinist Tori Parker, who had laid her instrument on the floor and come in search of something to eat.
1,200concerts organized by Groupmuse over three years and four cities
Hosting a house concert might sound like something you need a North End mansion to do, but that’s where the democracy of social media comes in.
“It doesn’t have to be big or beautiful,” says Larry Grove, for whom the Pardalote concert was his third Groupmuse experience. “It just has to be someone’s home.”
In a way, Miller’s home was the ideal space for a trio. With a décor of plants, vinyl LPs, guitars and rugs, the Alki apartment opened out to a big bay window looking north to Seattle’s lit skyline. It was advertised to fit 40 people, but a dozen was far more comfortable. Miller — a guitarist himself — frequently uses it for concerts of his own and other bands, but turned recently to Groupmuse for the classical music and the organization.
There’s no doubt chamber music up close is an infinitely more satisfying experience. Instead of program notes, Bentley and her colleagues chatted briefly about each piece, reading Wikipedia entries off their phones and demonstrating musical themes. In the first piece — a passacaglia and fugue written by Czech composer Hans Krasa — the contrast of the soft, minor-chromatic theme played whisperingly on the fingerboard and the final, painful, angular fortes spilling over into dissonance was heightened by sheer proximity. Just 10 feet away, we could see Parker’s smiles, catch Bentley’s exchanged glances with cellist Rowena Hammill, hear indrawn breaths and subtle bow articulations. The sound was crystal clear without being overpowering in such a small space, and the piece ended with a “Woot!” from someone in the audience.
“Did you like that?” asked Bentley, eagerly.
Heads nodded, and someone asked how she “did that scary sound at the end,” at which all three gave a quick explanation of playing ponticello (close to the bridge) and tremolo (rapid bows back and forth) to produce ghostly tones.
“The opportunity to speak about the piece, to let the audience in, to include them and educate them, makes performing 120 times better,” says Sarah Davis, an opera singer and volunteer board member for Seattle Groupmuse who was at the concert as emcee.
It’s also not a long event — another appeal to younger listeners. The Krasa was around 10 minutes, with a 15-minute break for more drinks and socializing, and the Jean Cras trio that followed took 20 minutes. As the trio wound up the final chords, a ferry sailed past outside the window.
It’s a perfect musical and social experience — but does it pay?
No, say Bentley and Davis. With a suggested donation of $10 per person, most Groupmuse concerts would only cover gas money for musicians. But, as Bentley points out, that’s pretty standard for self-promoted concerts, and at least there’s no venue or marketing fees. For groups like Trio Pardalote, who have other, better-paying gigs like teaching or big orchestras, Groupmuse is a chance to reach a crowd that’s not going to traditional concerts.
“It’s an interesting time we’re living in,” Bentley says. “The younger generation, who are highly idealistic, are not as interested in funding arts organizations in order to feel prestigious — they are more inclined to want to help people who are suffering. … It is our privilege to do (these concerts) as mid-career artists who do not have the wolf at the door. We hope that we spark enthusiasm for live music by creating events that have a totality of satisfaction: The music was beautiful, the environment was welcoming and there was a connecting element socially.”
This is the social magic of Groupmuse, putting like-minded chamber music lovers together, and especially appealing to a younger generation.
Heather Bentley, violist
It’s also a chance, Davis says, to do a first performance of a new program in a casual, low-pressure venue.
For hosts, it’s a way to open your house up to music while someone else does the organization. Groupmuse also vets attendees via social media cross-checks and private and public after-concert commenting.
Right now, there are no Groupmuse concerts in Tacoma. Organizations like Second City Chamber Music and the Revels do house concerts for fundraising, but they’re often higher-priced events targeting an inner circle of supporters. But there’s no reason why the Seattle Groupmuse couldn’t extend to Tacoma, Davis says; upcoming concerts include Redmond and Sammamish. All they need are musicians and hosts.
“Groupmuse is about taking chamber music off the stage and bringing it back to where it was originally written for,” Davis says. “And it’s an opportunity to perform for an audience that has never heard classical music before.”
How to do Groupmuse
To attend Groupmuse events: Go to groupmuse.com and search Seattle. Be ready to upload a photo, social media links and brief personal information.
To apply as a musician: Go to groupmuse.com and click “perform.” Be ready to upload audio and video links, photos, a repertoire list, and biographical and contact information.
To offer your home for concerts: Go to groupmuse.com and click “host.” Be ready to offer a date and time, your address, the capacity of your space (minimum 10), the set-up (preferred noise level, if you have a piano), the tone and age range.