Xenia Concerts: A New Way to Listen?

interview by Carey Rutherford, article by Paul Verhaegh

Performance seen 09 September 2017, Studio Bell (National Music Centre), 850-4 Street SE, Calgary, Alberta

Sarah Nematallah is a violinist in the Cecilia String Quartet, and she and her ensemble are also the founders of Xenia Concerts Inc., for which she is the executive and artistic director. Her performance experience is not limited to the expected carpeted venues, that’s for sure:

Three female musicians, holding their violin, cello, and viola onstage.
Sarah Nematallah, Violin, Rachel Desoer, Cello, and Caitlin Boyle, Viola perform a Beethoven string trio in a Toronto Xenia concert, 2016. Image courtesy of Xenia Concerts Inc.

“Throughout my career as a violinist, I’ve had the opportunity of performing in incredible concert halls all over the world: in Berlin, in Amsterdam, and in London. On the other hand I have also been invited to play in a lot of non-standard settings: I’ve played in a jail; in hospitals; in physics laboratories; in schools for homeless youth. And I have definitely found those performances as important and enjoyable as some of the other performances that we gave in your typical concert hall.”

When performing in such a wide variety of venues, unexpected encounters do happen:

“On one of my tours with the ensemble, I came across a very famous pianist named Stephen Prutsman. He talked to us on how, for families who are touched by autism, it is often very difficult to get to concerts, because there is typically this unwritten code of needing to sit very still and to listen to the music. You can’t even open a candy wrapper . . . These kids and these families absolutely love classical music, but there is a true accessibility issue here.

“I’ve heard stories from these families of them going to other classical concerts and being asked to leave, because their son or daughter couldn’t sit still through the show. So it just seemed like a real shame…”

The performance in Studio Bell is a perfect example of this approach. There are people sitting or standing in the space, according to their choice, and they can walk freely in and out during the performance. Up front, close to the podium, the little ones sit on the floor so that they can move around instead of having to sit still all the time.

A Xenia Concert is most definitely a family affair. Photo by Andi Tyler

“I am just speaking from the perspective of a classical violinist. I wanted to create a series that was presenting the music which I believe is very, very good music. I wasn’t intending to simplify it in an extraordinary way, but at the same time present it in a way that is acceptable for this audience.”

The main piece of the performance is broken down into parts that are played with an explanation given about each movement. Sarah’s background in teaching shows itself here.

“The performance in Studio Bell featured Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. We broke up the movements: we interspersed it with shorter works by Schubert to present it in a way that makes it more accessible for this audience. So they get to hear Schubert’s Death and The Maiden played by a high level ensemble, but still formatted in a way that make sense for them.

“And then there is a space that is friendly to these audiences, so it does have to be wheelchair accessible and all that good stuff, but also that the seats should be movable. So if someone doesn’t want to sit in a chair, they can sit on the floor, or they can go and dance. They can listen in any style that makes them comfortable. The musicians are prepared to take any sound or any movement that happens as part of the show: it doesn’t deter from the performances in any way.”

A concert like this could happen on a street corner with the train going by, and also the music doesn’t play down to anyone.

Rachel Desoer on cello demonstrates dynamic arm movements, but the mind is focussed. Photo by Andi Tyler.

“Another component is the speaking. A lot of times just a few words before each movement or a theme that goes through the program, or something just to move from one piece to the next, to make those transitions between musical numbers make more sense.”
Apparently there is, and there has been, more to enjoying a classical performance than one would think based on the way it is consumed in most concert halls.

“There was a point in classical music when applauding and cheering during performances was normal. Back in the times of Haydn or even Brahms, it was normal for audiences to ask musicians to repeat a movement right after they played it. That is another reason why it is a bit silly to be so adamant about some of these very strict listenings styles. There is a great advantage to listening very quietly, because you can hear a lot of detail. On the other hand it is also great to be able to express what you are feeling about the music and how much you enjoyed it. It makes a visceral connection between you and the music, instead of feeling that you have to restrain yourself. I think there is a place for both.”

And that place is clearly with Xenia Concerts.

Posted by Carey Rutherford

Author: Paul Verhaegh

Music is oxygen for the soul. And there is so much music out there that you don’t even know about. If you like writing and need some oxygen now and then, writing about music is a natural combination. My love for music made me take piano lessons: after a few years it became clear that it didn’t really stick with me. Nor did the trumpet, which I tried to learn too. Well, maybe I should have tried it earlier in live. Starting it your thirties is a bit late, even when it is in your early thirties! A lasting legacy of this episode is that I realized that making music is like giving a speech without reading it from paper, although there are exceptions, like orchestras. But once they've started a song or tune it sounds like they just go with the flow, or, as the expression goes, be taken away by their own muse.