Musical journeys into secret Vancouver

Why do I love these concerts? They’re original, committed, self confident, unsentimental—and hearing musicians like Taylor and François rip up The Apartment, the superlatives just keep coming.

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Crash the crawl

When pianist Sarah Hagen moved to Vancouver from Comox, she traded off her small-town base camp (and sanctuary from her busy touring schedule) and started house concerts of her own. She'd inaugurated a series of living room concerts in Comox to chase off the isolation that comes with being a concert pianist in a small town and to try out new repertoire because as she put it, “If you play repertoire and no one hears it, did it happen?” 

But where her Comox house concerts had a fee, her Vancouver house concerts at the ARC (near Powell Street and Commercial Drive) are free to a by-invitation-only audience. This time, the feeling of sanctuary is much more about the music than the setting. While box cars couple in the rail yard just below her window strains of Haydn and Rachmaninov roll down from her Steinway Boston semi grand above making odd acoustic bedfellows. “I kept doing house concerts because I loved the intimacy of private concerts”, she said, "but because of the trains, I can’t guarantee the experience.”

Other than the artist wine (see her blog, Uncorking musician-priced cellar secrets), she has no overhead to deal with so making concerts free “removes all the barriers for people to come”. Sarah usually sends out invites to people on a private list and accepts the first 20 who respond, "and those who live in the building bring their own chairs”.

Sarah Hagen house concert at the ARC
Sarah Hagen house concert at the ARC. Photo courtesy Sarah Hagen

For three years she participated in the Eastside Culture Crawl, which drew a thousand people up into her little flat over a single week-end. But this year to get around the Crawl's new visual-artist-only policy, she’s uncoupled her house concert from the Crawl and together with spoken word artist Chris Gilpin, she’ll offer her own iconoclastic “Crash the crawl!” performance parallel to the Crawl on November 20. 

Private concerts—welcome the uncompromising

Let’s face it, if you’re going to book a venue, arrange event permits, hire front-of-house staff, and all the rest, your bottom line is to get bottoms in seats. Unfortunately, that may entail cajoling, persuading, intimidating, or simply hiring artists who are going to play the kind of music that’s already proven to maximize on bummage—a recipe the precludes experimentation and risk taking. But China Cloud, like The Apartment, operates according a different principle. China Cloud (in Chinatown) is a small and intimate gallery that often holds private concerts making it perfect for artists who perform outside of mainstream tastes to perform while ensuring overhead is low.

China Cloud
Private concert at China Concert. Photo courtesy Jason Hall

I visited China Cloud to hear guitarist Adrian Verdejo’s release concert for his new CD, modern hearts - new music for electric guitar. Verdejo is essentially a classical guitarist, but his CD launch concert paid generous tribute to minimalist, jazz, and even punk rock influences, so it was incredible to hear Adrian use the word “chamber music” in what is essentially a lounge atmosphere—and that nobody flinched when he did! The reason was simple: professional musicians and composers comprised the majority of the audience. Verdejo is a musician’s musician not just for his virtuosity, but for his uncompromising commitment to following the muse wherever it may go.

François Houle compared what’s happening in Vancouver private concerts to The Stone in New York’s East Village. The Stone is a new artists' space dedicated to a very different curatorial model. True to its anti-establishmentarian roots, musicians take turns curating the programs, which are devoted entirely to experimental and avant-garde music. 

Risking the intimate

Why do I love these concerts? They’re original, committed, self confident, unsentimental—and hearing musicians like Taylor and François rip up The Apartment, the superlatives just kept coming. It’s what music sounds like when it doesn’t compromise to popular taste—when it refuses to sell out. “I like that, both as a player and listener”, Nils said, “The audience can totally feel that they're a crucial part of the performance.” Or in Taylor’s words, “It’s a big journey. Like you’re biking somewhere.”

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