The words “salon concert” conjure up an image of a beautiful setting in nineteenth-century Paris, London or Vienna where a select few intellectuals and dilettantes gather to enjoy music, poetry, art and conversation – an exclusive event for like-minded individuals.
Today the spirit of the salon concert lives on in venues like the 1901 Arts Club (whose furnishings could have come straight from nineteenth-century Paris), the spacious Marylebone drawing room concerts of the highest order regularly hosted by Bob and Elizabeth Boas, or the more modern vibe of Fidelio Café on Clerkenwell Road, and in series such as …Petits Concerts or 7 Star Arts’ concerts at a convivial little Japanese café in Kew. But whatever the venue, the modern salon concert is about creating a special intimacy and connection between audience and musicians, and an ambiance of shared experience, and venues such as the 1901 Arts Club and Fidelio Arts Café have succeeded in reimagining the salon concert for the 21st century audience. Not only is it a wonderful way to experience live music, the modern salon concert breaks down the barriers normally associated with classical music in a formal concert hall and brings music-lovers together in a convivial, relaxed setting. The experience of enjoying music amongst friends is uplifting and inspiring.
Down in a pretty part of West Sussex, not far from Petworth, another salon concert series takes place, organised and generously hosted by Neil and Debbie Franks. Neil is chairman of The Petworth Festival, a keen amateur pianist, passionate music lover, and supporter of other musicians.
An elegant music room-cum-library, which boasts two fine grand pianos, (including possibly the best Steinway B I’ve ever played!) and seats around 70 people, is the setting for Neil Franks’ salon concerts. Initially, these house concerts were very much “music for friends, with friends” – he’d gather together a few talented piano friends and we’d play solos, duos, 6-hands, 8-hands and more – and mingle with audience during the interval and afterwards. Lately, his house concerts have transformed into a modern salon where young talent is showcased and celebrated. For Neil it is also an opportunity to support musicians in their careers and to recognise the “great value derived by the musicians in performing their own very personalised and precious repertoire to small audiences in intimate settings, and the huge enjoyment realised by audiences. In the right settings, the combination generates some absolutely wonderful and passionate performances. The same was true in the British and European salons of the 19th and early 20th centuries and much was written by composers and musicians at the time about the tremendously important and inspirational value they took from those evenings” (Neil Franks)
“Between us, we very much enjoyed putting the programme together that I think I can say came together quite naturally as each pianist had something special to offer that led to a perfect combination of solos, duets, 2-piano duos, and even 8-hands pieces. The solos were almost mini, individually-curated recitals, and the multi-handed pieces offered contrast to the solos in which the individuals were in the spotlight.
Each pianist also gave short but informally presented introductions to their pieces – a far more welcoming practice than the paper-consuming lengthy, and usually rather dry and inaccessible essays of programme notes. The result was 2 hours of absolutely absorbing music: not just absorbing the notes, but really feeling the very vibrations of the music in the salon environment, something that is a rarity in a concert hall however magnificent the pianos might be. One of the notable advantages of the salon is the total elimination of any physical barrier between performer and audience.” (Neil Franks)
“It is abundantly clear that classical music is in need of a lot of tender loving care, just like so many forms of cultural activities where consumption patterns have changed in recent years – and would have changed even if Covid didn’t happen, but Covid concentrated the disruption in a very short period. We are all very aware of the options available now, very much including the opportunity to “consume” our music online. We are equally aware that the majority of classical music takes place in formal settings of concert halls in major cities, town halls and churches in smaller towns. I think it’s reasonably safe to say that there will always be a hardcore audience of passionate music-lovers who will look for what they want to hear and travel to the concerts of their choice, but music needs to attract new and younger audiences, many of whom are not so likely to be attracted to these formal settings, especially as they may not be fully familiar with what’s on offer. So I think the key is to make music in interesting venues that already go some way to removing the formality barrier. The venues themselves can generate interest in attendance. So let’s all think outside the box and bring new ideas, new and interesting venues to make concert-going an experience for many more. Include art exhibitions, gardens, lovely food and drink and anything else you can imagine! ” (Neil Franks)