Concerts give amateurs an outlet

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Charles Downey

In years past, before the Internet or even television, people used to play musical instruments at home to entertain themselves and their friends.

Today, few play chamber music together as a family, and even the piano that used to have a place of honor in the salon or living room of most homes has largely disappeared — perhaps replaced by an electronic keyboard or Guitar Hero.

But there are still outlets for amateurs who love to play a grand piano — and those who love to listen. Among them is the Piano Society of Greater Washington, whose members provide a link to live piano music for area residents.

The group sponsors five recitals a year, featuring members and guest performers at a church in Silver Spring, Md. All performances are free, and the all-volunteer organization relies on donations from supporters and members to survive.

Making time for music

Dr. Robert C. Snyder, who recently retired as chairman of pathology at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, is a Piano Society member. He has played the piano since second grade and also studied piano privately as a college student.

He now treks regularly to Philadelphia to have lessons with Susan Starr, a famous concert pianist who won the Silver Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition as a youth.

“I guess people always make time for what they really love, no matter how busy they are,” Snyder said. “Music has always been and always will be one of the most important things in my life.

“Susan Starr has been my greatest musical influence, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to observe her, work with her, and learn from her since 1968 when I first met her.”

Snyder said he generally practiced a couple of hours each day after work during his medical career. “Hopefully, now that I am retired I will be able to spend more time practicing.”

Alice Stark-Garofano, a substitute teacher at Calvary Lutheran Church and School in Silver Spring, founded the Piano Society of Greater Washington in 2003, hosting the first meeting in her house.

Since Stark-Garofano’s death in 2008, Ellen Tenenbaum, who lives in Derwood, Md., became the lead organizer for the society, but all of the members are active in keeping the organization going and deciding what pieces are performed.

“Works to be performed bubble up, as each member is working on a wide range of repertoire and at some point is confident that certain works are performance-ready,” Tenenbaum said of the process.

“About six weeks before each concert, we try to meet and perform pieces for each other, and decide by consensus what will be a solid, interesting program.

“Often one of the members brings in a guest artist or group to play a four-hand work or chamber work involving the piano, and these works add a lovely variety to the program.”

In fact, members are not always amateurs, as some have careers in music, either as teachers or performers.

Connecting with the audience

Shirley Bieri, who describes herself as a “very senior senior,” attended the society’s September concert, her second. “The group plays at a venue easy to drive to and at a time early enough so [I don’t have to] drive in the dark,” said Bieri, who lives in Silver Spring. “It is intimate in feeling and thoroughly appreciated. The participants are giving us a gift!”

At that concert, member Viscount Thurston played two selections, Mozart’s B-flat sonata (K. 333) and excerpts from Schumann’s op. 12 “Fantasiest├╝cke.”

Vike, as he is known, was performing in honor of his wife, Vickie, who is preparing a project in Guatemala for Habitat for Humanity. The free-will donation at the September concert was directed toward Vickie’s project, which will begin this December.

Roger Coleman played three Chopin nocturnes, and Gala Gurinovich played three transcriptions of Polish songs by Chopin. It was the latter’s farewell performance for the society, before she moves to Europe.

Stephen E. McLaughlin attends the society’s concerts regularly with his wife, Sophia. The Silver Spring couple admires the way that the performers speak to the audience about what they are going to play, shedding light on the composer’s life, history of the composition, or technical aspects of the work, as well as providing their own personal insights.

They also enjoy the receptions after each concert, which offer the chance to speak further with the performers over refreshments.

“There is no feeling of aloofness, due to the fact that though many of the pianists are capable of performing professionally, they are all amateurs who have other careers and pursuits that audience members can closely identify with,” McLaughlin said.

These events are also excellent opportunities to build friendships beyond the recital hall. “My wife and I often go out to dinner after recitals along with our Piano Society friends, exploring additional shared interests and getting to know their families.”

Sue LaRoche, who is now retired from a career at the National Institutes of Health, said that the society’s concerts have taken the place of the lunchtime chamber music concerts she used to attend at NIH.

She said that she is “much impressed by the professionalism of the pianists and their detailed introductions to each piece they play. It is such a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity right in my own neighborhood.”

LaRoche, who lives in Silver Spring, was so inspired, in fact, that she credits the society’s concerts for leading her to start piano lessons herself. She also sings in a choir for older adults sponsored by Encore Creativity for Older Adults.

The allure of live music

In addition to the main society concerts, Tenenbaum estimates that she performs about 50 concerts each year in retirement communities, independent and assisted living facilities, and for adult education and lifelong learning programs, often to try out pieces she plans to play for the society’s concerts.

“There is no substitute for the live performance of music, experienced up close, as we are able to do in these settings,” she said.

“The human connection is a deep and powerful presence in these concerts,” she added. “I like to speak to people about the music I am going to play, and I answer questions about the music or the composers.

“When the concert is over, people invariably come and take my hands. Occasionally, I will see tears in their eyes. I stay and sit down a while, and listen, for some listeners have vivid memories of their careers as musicians or music teachers, and they may recount unforgettable concerts in Vienna, Budapest, London and New York.”

Tenenbaum, who went back to studying the piano 10 years ago after being away from it, emphasizes that music is something that should be available to anyone with an interest in it.

“You are not too old or too slow,” she insisted. “Your hands are fine. With the right teacher and the selections that are right for you, you can play the pieces you love and play them musically.”

She suggests that good places to start are the adult music program at the Levine School of Music (www.levineschool.org, (202) 686-8000) and the Adult Music Student Forum (www.amsfperform.org, amsf@amsfperform.org), a supportive group of about 140 amateur musicians.

Both are based in Washington and offer lessons, in addition to performance opportunities

“The piano literature is vast and filled with masterpieces that are accessible,” she said. “The challenge of every piece — in particular those pieces you’d think are ‘easy’ — is to play the piece with deep musicality. This you can do.”

The next concert by the Piano Society of Greater Washington is scheduled for Dec. 11 at 3 p.m. at Calvary Lutheran Church, 9545 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, just south of the Beltway. Works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Martinu and Leroy Anderson will be performed.

There is no fee, and a reception follows for all to enjoy. A freewill offering is appreciated. For more information, call (301) 793-1863 or see www.pianosocietyofgreaterwashington.org.

Charles Downey is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Parts of this story first appeared in a blog post he wrote for Washingtonian magazine.