When Dr. Yelena Grinberg entertains in her Upper West Side residence, guests often ask the professional pianist how she got her Steinway into the apartment.
“Some people ask me if I brought it through the window,” Grinberg said from her couch in her pre-war apartment, the handsome mahogany instrument behind her. “It just goes through the door.”
The piano is the main attraction in her home, and with good reason. Grinberg, who received her doctorate in performance from the Juilliard School, opens up her living room for regular concerts, making classical music accessible while offering her fellow musicians a crucial performance element often hard to come by: a venue.
Originally conceived as a vehicle for her own performances, she now invites fellow artists to perform in her Grinberg Classical Salon Series.
“A lot of people have approached me, asking if they can play in the series because they’re in a similar situation, where they can’t find a space or they can’t afford to rent a hall,” said Grinberg, who made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2005.
Beyond the financial benefits of the house venue—performance spaces can cost anywhere from $200-$1,000 per hour to rent, and artists often only break even or lose money in the venture, Grinberg said—the intimacy brings audiences close to the performers and offers a more personal connection to the repertoire, which helps musicians cultivate a following.
“Playing for a full house, even if it’s just 25 people, it feels like a very successful and fulfilling experience,” Grinberg said of the performers in her series. “A lot of them play in very big halls and more prestigious venues, but a lot of times they’re half full or they don’t fill the seats. Maybe the prestige is there but it doesn’t feel emotionally satisfying because you’re playing for empty chairs.”
The series includes one to two concerts a month, and always on Sundays at 5 p.m. in Grinberg’s living room, a white-walled space with crown molding and warm wooden accents, of which her grand piano is the centerpiece. Admission is nominal, comparable to a movie ticket and a bag of popcorn, and includes a cocktail reception with food donated by neighborhood restaurant Turkuaz. Concerts, which can accommodate an audience of nearly 30, sell out quickly or come very close, she said. Musicians don’t worry about breaking even; Grinberg pays all her performers.
Grinberg, who also teaches music history at Fordham University and offers private piano instruction, started the salon series in 2012, a year after she moved into the residence from her previous home, a small one-bedroom that barely fit an upright piano. Impressed with the acoustics in her new living room, Grinberg bought a 100-year-old Steinway grand piano, which she refurbished with a rich mahogany finish.
Soprano Karyn Levitt previously attended Grinberg’s salons, and made her series debut on Sunday with a concert of songs by Austrian composer Hanns Eisler and lyrics by poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht.
“As an audience member, it’s wonderful to mingle with the artists and tell them your experience,” said Levitt, who recently moved to Harlem from Boston. “Performers love that. They love to know that what they’ve put out, however small the venue, that it hits home.”
Levitt performed with piano accompaniment by Eric Ostling to an audience of about 20, all seated in four short rows of folding chairs and on Grinberg’s couch. Some knew the performers, and some were repeat guests at the series. One woman traveled in from Westchester for the performance. Another came from Brooklyn.
Rebecca Sanandres met Levitt when she complimented the singer’s outfit at a party. Levitt invited her to the Grinberg salon, and Sanandres attended with her friend Laura Wagner, who said the intimate parlor setting reminded her of “Downton Abbey.”
“It is a throwback in a way to old music salons,” said Wagner. “When people didn’t have venues like movie theaters and entertainment consisted solely of inner groups and small groups at home.”
The tradition of house concerts dates back to the mid-18th century, Grinberg said, when friends gathered in private residences for small, informal concerts.
“This was how classical music was meant to be experienced,” she said. “Sonatas, string quartets, chamber music. This was the setting for it.”
Grinberg still performs in the series, weaves a lecture component throughout her shows and enjoys championing the work of less celebrated composers. Her Jan. 31 concert featured Beethoven and Mendelssohn sonatas, as well as a piece by the less-performed Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Upcoming performances highlight Russian and Hungarian composers (Grinberg is from Moscow).
For a performer, the space provides a connection with the audience, Levitt said.
“The audience is two feet away from you” she said. “You’re in direct touch with them. It’s very personal and direct.”
Libby Skala traveled to the Upper West Side from Brooklyn for Levitt’s performance, and finds the small space and casual environment more appealing than a large, prestigious venue at Lincoln Center.
“I probably wouldn’t seek out the New York Philharmonic or be regularly buying tickets to classical music, but I do love the intimacy,” she said. “I feel like there’s a connection, where I’m not one of thousands sitting in the audience. It’s like this person is singing for me.”
Panyin Conduah contributed to this report