Chamber Magic

Looking ahead at the third season of the Belvedere Series featuring classical music in intimate spaces.

Ingrid Keller’s ambitious Belvedere Series is one of the jewels of the Richmond music scene. The program brings musicians with headlining reputations to play an adventurous mix of chamber works in the kind of intimate settings for which they were written.

Classical music is defined by masterworks played by a small army of musicians in voluminous concert halls. But symphonies, concertos, and operas are only the tip of the genre iceberg. The vast majority of works by major (and modern) composers are for far smaller ensembles. For every orchestral epic there are dozens of solo, duet, trio, quartet, quintet, or other works compact enough to fit players and audience into a reasonably sized room.

For concert pianist Keller, the problem was not just that these smaller pieces were seldom played. “The symphony stage is very different from playing in a room with other people,” she explains. “I have played a lot of gigs at universities, in beautiful recital and concert halls. But sometimes I feel that the academic aura means the people that go to those concerts are not there for the reasons that I want to be making music. Those venues were just not conducive to connecting with an audience, which as musicians, is kind of our job. Chamber music contains composers’ deepest secrets, they pour their hearts out.” The passionate humanity of the pieces was lost in impersonal, formal settings.

Keller and her husband, operatic tenor and Executive Director of Development at VCU School of Medicine Nathan Bick, started experimenting with the house concert concept in the rustic loft in Cincinnati where they lived before moving to Richmond. “We would invite our neighbors and people who knew nothing about music and serve wine and snacks,” Keller says. “It was really fun, but I wanted it to be a little more formal than that.”

After moving to Richmond, with the performing downtime of the pandemic, Keller put her energy into founding a nonprofit to fund the program. “My husband has a lot of arts administrative experience, but I wanted to do this myself,” she says. “In the spring of 2021, during the pandemic, I took an online course with Nicholas Photinos, one of the founders of Eighth Blackbird. I thought of a name and then we ended up buying this restored farmhouse for [the Belvedere Series].”

The ideal space was the historic Marburg House. Built in 1889, four years before the establishment of Maymont Park, it is the oldest standing house in the Carillon/Byrd Park neighborhood. The building has a storied past, including prohibition era parties supplied by a secret, dungeon-like room in the basement where bootleggers hid their alcohol. The concerts take place in a spacious room connecting the main house and kitchen with lofty ceilings, a grand piano, and a huge, ornate mirror.

The first season, starting in May 2022, was a leap of faith.

“I was very nervous and had no idea if people were going to come,” Keller says. “It ended up selling out six weeks in advance. From there, we figured out the flow of thing and built a loyal following. People seemed really excited.” The next season, they expanded the program to larger, but still chamber-friendly spaces: the recital hall at St. Christopher’s School and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “I realized that not everybody is comfortable going to the house of someone that they do not know. And also, there is an accessibility issue. [Marburg is an] old house that is not ADA compliant. And I wanted to have more than four people in a group, which is all the width of the home salon allows.” There was concern about filling the additional seats but Keller says things have gone really well.

A former Belvedere Series performance featuring Joshua Halpern on cello and Jessica Xylina Osborne on piano.

The just-announced 2024-25 season is the most ambitious yet, expanding from ten to 15 concerts including six intimate salon performances and two “grand concert” event- featuring 23 artists. The series starts with works from Mozart and Dvorak celebrating Prague, a vocal program ranging from classical to popular music, programs centered around French music, the solo violin works of Bach, a jazz trio performing in a speakeasy vibe, and an appearance from the Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet. Perhaps most compelling is a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” an apocalyptically stunning piece written and debuted while the composer was interned under harsh conditions in a World War II German war camp.

Setting the bar even higher is a challenge. “I’m not sure we can do better than this season,” Keller admits. “But I probably said that last year, too. I am really looking forward to sharing this music, and a little bit worried about selling tickets to the bigger venues. A lot of times, people wait until the last minute.”

No matter how successful a series may be, there are always uncertainties. But with ticket prices starting at just $30, and the opportunity to hear every nuance played by world-class artists only yards away, it is not the audience who is taking the risk.

The season opens with Prague Panorama (Mozart and Dvořák) on Sept. 21. Full season subscriptions will be available online starting June 24 at 10% off the full ticket price. Tickets for individual events are $30-45. Information is available online at www.belvedereseries.org

Note: This story has been updated to correct typos, composer name punctuation as well as some incorrect ticket information from a website. Also Nicholas Phontinos’ last name was misspelled in an earlier version.   

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