Want Wealthy Backers for Your Music? Try London's Salons

Want Wealthy Backers for Your Music? Try London's Salons

Author and pianist Paul Roberts reads from his book "Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel" in a London salon in 2013.

SourceAmy T. Zielinski/Redferns via Getty

Why you should care

Emerging musicians are finding a new set of venues to perform and network with potential sponsors in U.K. salons.  

Upstairs in the double-height drawing room, in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, a viola player is poised behind her music stand. Her accompanist is at the Steinway piano. After a few words from host Vivien Mclean to her assembled friends, Virginia Slater and Adam Johnson launch into Fauré’s Élégie; Slater plays a furious run up the scale with lovestruck fury, which turns into grave music of moaning acceptance.

Mclean, a London society hostess who married property investor Peter Beckwith in 2014, has been running this salon in her Chelsea home since 2008. The guests’ fee of £30 ($40) goes to the singers, soloists or quartets, who might also be spotted by any festival directors or concert bookers in attendance. There are drinks and canapés after the recital, and Mclean underwrites the event. They now happen up to 12 times a year.

She is not the only person organizing salons with a philanthropic purpose. In fact, as conservatories turn out greater numbers of talented young musicians and as remunerative opportunities for them have diminished, London’s better-off music lovers are fostering a salon culture for players’ benefit — and their own pleasure.

Salons are valuable to musicians, says Slater. “It is a unique form of music-making, and sharing it so closely and personally with the audience is very special. Subtle intricacies in the music can often be lost in large concert halls.” The opportunity to meet supporters is also key. “I believe it is important and mutually beneficial to nurture the relationship with contributors,” she says, adding that the relationship could last as long as her career.

Anything but the concert hall is the most interesting, sexy venue.

Stewart Collins, artistic director, Henley music and arts festival

What enables a salon, at the most basic level, is having the right space. Mclean’s house was built in the late 19th century for an artist whose studio requirements provided her drawing room’s bright, generous proportions. The space, Mclean says, “sang to me,” almost demanding a creative response. “It was an easy decision to try to help young musicians by organizing concerts for them at home in a chamber environment,” which their music would have been composed for, she says.

Stewart Collins, the artistic director of the Henley music and arts festival in the U.K. county of Berkshire, found himself with a similar opportunity when he moved to a converted school hall in Hackney, north London. Collins now runs what he calls “House Music” a handful of times a year.

“Increasingly, these days, anything but the concert hall is the most interesting, sexy venue,” he says.

While Mclean’s space is elevated, with its 18th century Brussels tapestry and English painting, Collins talks about the relaxed nature of his home and how that interacts with the music: “There are settees, tables, plants, flowers, books. It makes for a fantastic sense of informality about a performance, which you’d never get in a concert hall.” He does note, however, that one of the charms of the salon experience is “getting access to someone’s home  … rather glamorous buildings owned by very, very wealthy bankers and businessmen.”

Collins, who views his salon in part as an audition for the festivals he runs, asks his guests to put however much money they would like for the performers into what he jokingly calls “the tagine of love”: a Moroccan earthenware pot he brought back from holiday. He is firm that the musicians need to be paid: “If I feel there’s a shortfall in what has been put into the dish, I’ll make it up. [As a former performer] I’m the last person in the world who’s going to financially abuse performers. It’s how they make their living: They deserve a rightful payoff for what they’re doing.”

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Bob Boas, who is one of London’s longest-established salon organizers, has a different attitude.

Boas, former managing director of investment bank SG Warburg, and his wife founded their salon in November 2001 after their youngest son died. They endowed a trust in his name, which gives grants to young musicians, and guests at the salon can donate to it.

Musicians who perform at his house can apply to this trust, but he does not pay them for their performance. I ask him how this sits in a climate where, for example, unpaid internships have been banned in Britain: “The thought [is] that you’re exploiting people, but I don’t quite see why you are — there’s no pressure on them to do it. The younger musicians we can and do help after they’ve performed here in various ways.”

Players find that performing in a salon is useful for other reasons, he says.

“We have quite a few people wanting to have a dry run before, let’s say, an important Wigmore Hall recital or before making a recording — it makes a lot of difference, having the ability to perform in public.”

He points to pianist Nathan Williamson, who ran through a program of 20th century English music at Boas’ house before he recorded it, and to L.A.-based Russian pianist Nikolay Khozyainov, who received an engagement based on his salon performance.

Boas also notes the importance of the space. In a piece for a musical magazine in 2005, he wrote that, after he and his wife left their old house to escape its memories, they wanted a space big enough “for an occasional string quartet to play to friends.” Their house-finder came up with two floors of a Marylebone building designed by 18th century architect Robert Adam, with an 18-feet-high drawing room that, Boas says, “has perfect acoustics for chamber music.” When talking about his salon, which happens 60 times a year, Boas emphasizes its privacy: There are about 75 friends and friends of friends at each one; there are no public notices or local posters. This is similar at other salons, which draw on extended social networks for guests.

Just as 18th century Vienna and 19th century Paris were salon centers, London’s salon organizers believe their city now has the crown.

Vivien Mclean used to live in New York and says that when she invited friends to her upstate country house for a recital, they were astonished. “They would question, ‘What do you mean there will be music?’ When we said that there would be a concert pianist performing a short program, they thought it was completely weird and incomprehensible.” In Vienna, she has a friend running a salon — but he is “the only one.”

Salon performances can also straddle the boundary between philanthropy and investment. After Slater and Johnson have finished playing, Nigel Brown, who runs the Stradivari Trust, stands up to speak. The trust assembles syndicates to buy instruments for use by performers; Slater’s viola, he says, was made by Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza of Milan in 1793. He asks the guests if they know anyone who might like to own part of it. Its total price is £535,000, plus a £25,000 fund-raising fee. A guest, impressed by the concert, looks excited as he says: “This might be my third one” — his third £10,000 investment in one of Brown’s syndicates.

Brown and Mclean have a close association, with Mclean’s concerts sometimes acting as a showcase both for a performer and for the instrument they are hoping to possess. Beneficiaries of the Stradivari Trust include violinist Nigel Kennedy (the first recipient) and cellists Steven Isserlis and Natalie Clein. Brown says he has raised £75m over 30 years for 45 instruments.

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One current beneficiary of the scheme is Davina Clarke, a violinist who specializes in music from the Baroque period (1600 to 1750), such as Bach and Handel, and plays a 1685 Francesco Ruggieri violin on loan from the Stradivari Trust. Clarke, who has done fund-raising recitals at both the Boas and the Mclean salons, describes finding her violin as “a little bit like falling in love.”

Having previously borrowed a violin and been “completely devastated” when she had to give it back, Clarke was keen on long-term tenure. The Ruggieri “has taken my playing to another level,” she says. “I feel like I can achieve anything with this violin. I think it’s really helped my career.” Clarke has performed with conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and ensembles including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Each syndicate, assembled in units of £5,000, gives the instrument to the musician on long-term loan. If the musician wants to eventually own the instrument, he or she can buy equity in it at the market rate over a period of 20 years. In this way, the musician has secure possession of an instrument he or she could not otherwise afford and the investors receive a return from the musician’s payments or an ultimate sale if the instrument appreciates. Brown’s prospectus cites an “average annual internal rate of return” of about 6 percent in nominal terms for a certain group of instruments.

Of course, any appreciation makes it more difficult for the player to buy shares. “Ideally I would love to start buying back shares as fast as I can,” says Clarke, “but it’s difficult at the moment. As one’s career takes off more, you’re earning more and therefore the violin starts paying for itself.” One route to ownership Clarke has imagined is her sponsors turning their contributions into donations, effectively gifting her their shares.

Both Clarke and Brown say they dislike the idea that people might only contribute for a financial return. Clarke only wanted people passionate about music in her syndicate, while Brown says: “There are more glorious things than 8 percent per annum compound.” The violin, which cost £140,000 to buy in January 2014, is now worth £180,000, according to Brown.

After Brown’s brief pitch at Virginia Slater’s performance, some of the guests discuss how Mclean is planning to sell her house, so I ask her if this is the end for her salon. It is not: “I will continue to present concerts,” she says, “so our next house will have to accommodate them in order that the music continues.” Architecture must bend to culture.

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By Josh Spero

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