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In Tune with The Living Room Chamber Music Project

On a Sunday afternoon in late January, five classical musicians stood before an audience in Pittsburgh, minutes before the start of a concert. Their venue was not Heinz Hall or the Benedum Center. This performance took place in the living room of Melissa and Stephen Neely of Regent Square, who hosted the fourth installment of the Living Room Chamber Music Project.

The group, made up of five musicians in their late 20s and early 30s,  held their first concert in September with the aim to broaden the audience of the classical music genre in Pittsburgh. With help from a Sprout Seed Award Grant, they have hosted one concert a month in a living room in Pittsburgh.

"All of us realized that we had friends who were college educated who knew a lot about books, movies and art, but were still a little afraid of classical music. They felt you had to know a lot about it, or they felt it was sterile or snooty. All of us realized that classic music is considered a minority music by people of our age," explained oboist Lenny Young.

The group -- in addition to Young, the ensemble includes violinist Ashley Buckley, mezzo soprano Raquel Winnica Young, and pianists Billie Jo Miller and Jack Kurutz -- came up with the idea for a living room chamber music series as a way to allow the audience to experience the performance up close, in a space that was more intimate and personal.

"We figured the best way would be in a house. In the 19th century, performances were done at home. You would invite friends over, someone would play piano, sing songs, and there would be people playing instruments. Famous composers like Schubert and Chopin gave private house concerts," Young explains.  "Before we had all these media options, before television and movies, the only way you could hear music was to hear it live. We wanted to tap into that power, the power that live music has."

The afternoon of live music at the Neely home began with a trio sonata in four movements from the 18th century works of George Frederic Handel, and a minimalist piece composed for solo piano by Kate Pukinskis, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's Masters in Music Composition.

Before playing, the musicians told the stories of each piece and their composers, starting with the four-movement trio sonata by Johann Joachim Quantz. Young explained that at one time, Quantz was considered to be the finest flute player in all of Europe.

Over the course of two hours, the audience experienced a completely different kind of concert. The performers were so close that you could hear each intake of breath and appreciate the rich warmth of the oboe, or the vibrant hums of the violin and piano. And nothing quite compares to having a mezzo soprano sing a mere few feet from where you sit.

The performance drew a crowd of about two dozen people who filled the rows of folding chairs in the Neely dining room.  Not wanting the cost of admission to be another barrier to accessing the music, the group has only asked audience members to make a free-will donation in a basket near the door.

"I like chamber music," explains James Bush of Pittsburgh's East End, who attended with his wife, Joan Stone. "Gathering in someone's home for wine and good music fosters a sense of community. It also fosters young musicians and their craft.  We'll also get to meet new people. I don't think you see enough of that."

All the musicians say that they feed off the intimacy of having the audience so close.

"People think its snooty and high brow," explains Miller, who was inspired to start the living room concert series after she and Young played a concert series with similar beginnings in Colorado. "They were talking about it, and they would all get together, they would bring in all these different kinds of groups and all these different people and they really enjoyed it, and I kept thinking that's a really cool idea."

When Miller returned to Pittsburgh, she and Buckley touched base with Young, a former classmate, and then Winnica Young and Kurutz.  In the summer, the group started making plans to start the series, and held their first concert in the fall.

"We all went to college at either Carnegie Mellon or Duquesne, and there's so much great music that goes on in those institutions and people don't hear it," adds Miller, who said that the group tries to play pieces that even the most avid symphony buffs may not have heard.

Winnica Young said one thing that she has enjoyed is the response from people who are willing to host chamber music concerts in their homes.  For this particular concert, the Neelys provided refreshments for the audience during a break and after the show. The ensemble stayed as well and talked with the audience members.

"Hosting this event was the highlight of our new year. We attended an earlier performance in the fall and were so impressed with the artistry of these musicians," explains Stephen Neely. "The intimate setting was so powerful that we wanted to be apart of this parlor concert series."

The group performed in February in Bellevue and on March 27th, they will perform in Wilkinsburg. In May they will be performing at a home in Somerset, PA.

For more information, or to RSVP for an upcoming show (seating is limited), visit their page on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/livingroomcmp.
Photographs taken at the Neely home, copyright Brian Cohen

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