Comfy couches, art by Robert Motherwell, Tara Donovan and Michael Massaia on display, and a stunning picture-window view of the Central Park reservoir is not a typical setting for a classical music concert, but that's what ticketholders get from St. Urban, a chamber music series started by pianist Lenore Davis.
Named for the Beaux-Arts building on Central Park West where Davis lives and hosts performances, each season of St. Urban includes three intimate house concerts followed by a commissioned work at a larger venue.
Davis, artistic director at Arbor Chamber Music in New Jersey until 2006, started St. Urban two years ago. She also performs during the concerts. Most at home collaborating with fellow musicians, Davis “loves rehearsals as much as the performance,” she said.
“Finding that connection with a fellow musician is a most special experience,” Davis said.
She conceived of the series, which include informal talk-backs with musicians and a cocktail hour following concerts, because as a performer she has always loved mingling with the audience.
“At these performances, people are literally coming into a living room,” she said. “Such a relaxed setting.”
Her home can accommodate up to 60 guests with folding chairs, window seats and couches. Her apartment, in a grand, pre-World War I building near 89th Street, already had the right dimmensions for it to host chamber music. It needed only a few renovations.
“We have a den behind the living room which acts as our green room,” Davis said.
Each season, St. Urban musicians focus on a unifying theme, and this season centered on poetry in song cycles and the instrumental music they inspire. The final performance, on May 9 at SubCulture on Bleecker Street, features “Songs for Days to Come,” a piece composed especially for the show by Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and set to texts by five Syrian poets, including Azmeh's uncle, all of whom live in exile from that war-torn country.
“I have wanted to work with lyrics for many years and I felt that these poems reflect and document the contrasting feelings a Syrian might have experienced in the last few years,” Azmeh said by email while traveling in Turkey, where he played fundraising concerts to benefit the construction of a library in Istanbul for Syrian refugees.
Azmeh worked closely with the poets in choosing the material, but also credits soprano Dima Orsho, his collaborator for more than 15 years, with much of the songs' fine-tuning.
The concert at SubCulture will feature Azmeh, Orsho and Davis, along with violinist Yevgeny Kutik and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, a musician with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center who has been with St. Urban since its inception. Andrew Byrne, the artistic director at Symphony Space, will moderate an informal discussion with the composer and musicians after the performance.
Azmeh, a Brooklyn resident, has toured with Yo-Yo Ma but takes time to perform for Syrian children in Jordanian refugee camps. He is also a spokesman for a United Nations humanitarian campaign that seeks to bring awareness of Syria's civil war. He hopes that his music will similarly affect his listeners.
“My music cannot stop a bullet, nor can it feed the hungry or rebuild a home,” he said. “But I do hope that it can inspire individuals and organizations and possibly the world community to act.”
Davis, who wants to take listeners on a musical journey when they come into her home for a concert, finds Azmeh's work a fitting end to St. Urban's second season.
“Kinan's evocative work as the finale for audience and performers [is] simply a thrilling culmination of our season,” she said.