Meet the hosts of Baltimore’s intimate classical music evenings
Published: June 1, 2011
They might not call it a salon, but more and more Baltimoreans are throwing open the doors of their homes to display local musical talent at its best. Whether your host calls it dinner and music, a house concert, a recital, or a salon, the main attraction is music.
Say “salon” and you might picture the grand hall of a French palace, or a stuffy room filled with ladies in ruffles and men in top hats. The most formal Baltimore’s salon movement gets is drinks out on the wraparound porch of a Roland Park house.
That’s what this reporter learned over a sumptuous dinner-and-music at host Paul Cassedy’s rowhouse, where 11 hosts, hostesses, and musicians (call them salonistas) gathered to talk DIY music and its impact on Baltimore musical life. Over glasses of 2000 Margaux Cru and a silky Helen Turley Petite Syrah, the assembled described intimate musical triumphs.
Kinobe, a young bandleader from Uganda; Celtic guitar god Robin Bullock; or Alexis Tantau, a mezzo-soprano on her way to the Languedoc of Southern France—these are the sorts of unique performers you’ll hear on the local salon circuit.
Generally, hosts mount two to four salons per year, with maximum attendance being around 50 people. Barbara Svaboda, a folk musician hostess, noted a developing trend among most hosts: She and her husband are doing more house concerts. “We used to do one to two per year,” she says. “But this year, we’ve done six. We just left the chairs up after a while.”
For many hosts, house concerts began with pianos. Charles Village host John McLucas’ salons started more than a decade ago when he inherited one. His 1858 piano has never left his father’s family since his great-grandaunt received it as a college graduation present. When it came to his house from South Carolina, it was the first time it had been moved in 120 years. That history encouraged restorer Fred Hickman to spend a year getting the rosewood beauty into solo-worthy shape. Many great singers have held court in the ex-professional chorister’s carpeted salon, including Phyllis Curtain (who attended as an audience member). Each salon has had a theme, often combining art and music. McLucas’ most recent performance honored a new acquisition: an expansive painting of rich violet plums that he hung across from his piano. While he doesn’t perform often, he occasionally will prove he “still has a G flat.”
The 1930 concert Steinway in David Ponder’s home entered salon service two years ago. The pianist/harpist believes in sharing the art with friends. Far less formal than McLucas’ salon, here guests loosen up after dinner and surround the piano for show tunes, as in a night with jazz pianist Dick Smith.
Some performers don’t have their own drool-worthy instrument. The Federal Hill Parlor Series sprang from this lack. Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen was out walking her dog one night and counted just how many pianos she was passing by inside the living rooms of her neighbors. She asked herself, I wonder if they get used? Soon, Ihnen began a service for wannabe salonistas. All you have to do is say you’re interested in a home concert, and she’ll round up the musicians to come to your door.
Her Open Houses at the Jordan Faye Contemporary take over artist/curator Jordan Faye Block’s art gallery. Such nights could offer classical voice and turntable. Parkton residents Kelly and Jason Trumpbour attended one event and then asked Ihnen to work her magic for their holiday party. Ihnen’s planning “really takes the load off the hostess,” Kelly Trumpbour says. The only hitch came just an hour before the performance, when the local fire department hook and ladders took over the street in full Christmas display with Santa in tow. Trumpbour glared out of the window: “You fat little elf, you better not disrupt my parking.” But Santa’s entourage left before the guests arrived and Trumpbour reports that everyone loved it—including their nonclassical-music friends and the caterers.
The best thing about salons is their ability to seize the moment. Wendy Shuford, folk hostess since 1999, enjoyed her most moving concert with Robin Bullock. The drama of a chance thunderstorm prompted Bullock to ask Shuford to turn off all the lights. Listeners could only see the silhouette of Bullock’s head, the shadows of the trees, and the bright tips of flowers on her balcony as the lightning sparked through the sky. Bullock took up the guitar for his last song—“Shenandoah”—and played thoughtfully, without singing the words. As he finished, the hush remained over the room, as all were too spellbound to speak or clap. That warm, pulsing silence, rare in a concert hall, happens often in intimate chamber music settings.
And doing your own salon is easier than you think. The Peabody Musician Referral Service ( 234-4650, weekdays 1-5 p.m.) offers alumni who are ready to work. You call up, say, “I think I’d like a cellist,” and Virginia Probasco sets you up with three to four names, recruiting performers from alumni and advanced students. Even Peabody director Jeff Sharkey digs the salon format. Probasco reports that he can occasionally be seen on a warm summer night hosting about 20 donors to a private at-home concert in Roland Park, where he serves cocktails on the porch. Fundraising and recitals for promising young musicians have longtime voice teacher Ruth Drucker and pianist Arno Drucker throwing open their studio, outfitted with two pianos, which they added onto the house when Ruth Drucker retired from Peabody. They serve wine and hors d’oeuvres to an audience of 20.
What do you really need to throw a music party besides musicians? Shuford suggests you can’t go wrong with 22 bucket stacking chairs. She leaves the intensive cooking to Cassedy’s salon, where you can expect a starter such as fresh quail eggs deviled with South Mountain Creamery cheese and filled with red caviar to be followed (two courses later) by tender pork loin in mole sauce. Shuford’s motto: “If you’re in a food mood, bring a snack to share.”
Baltimore salons are true Smalltimore events. Cassedy and McLucas may have only gone once or twice to each other’s salons, but they’ve both enjoyed having vocalist Ah Young Hong, who studied under Ruth Drucker, grace their friends with memorable performances. Likewise, Ruth Drucker offered a rare performance of Schubert lieder as her husband accompanied her on McLucas’ family piano. Often hosts have attended the same churches or been on the same folk-music society lists. Whether they’re haunting auditions for talent or sharing the pews, you’ll note one thing about this group: None of them is particularly shy.
Ponder coyly ventures from across the table, “I usually hire a hot, shirtless young man to help.” (E-mailed photos confirm.) “And one night the young man got more tips than the musician.”
Of course, hosting invites some chaos, from a last-minute plumbing emergency (solved by a guest) to unexpected instruments. Former Bolton Hill host Rick Shelley recalls the predicament when not one, but two concert harps started coming up the stairs to enter his small second-floor apartment.
As recounted by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, Singer sewing-machine heiress Princesse de Polignac knew that same feeling when she hosted Stravinsky’s 1915 debut of Les Noces. Her butler came to her, distressed to announce: “Madame la Princesse, four pianos have arrived.” She said simply, “Let them come in.”
Altogether, Baltimore’s salonistas prove that even if you’ve got a 12-foot-wide rowhouse, you can treat your musicians and guests as generously as a princess on the avenue Henri-Martin.
> Email Samantha Buker