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HOUSE MUSIC: Richmond couple starts new chamber music series in their living room

HOUSE MUSIC: Richmond couple starts new chamber music series in their living room

Furrowed brow. Pursed lips. A fleeting smile. A sharp intake of breath to gather strength for what is to come.

Emotion and effort are embedded in every musical production, but a new chamber music series produced out of Richmond’s historic Carillon neighborhood affords the audience an experience that is altogether more intimate.

The Belvedere Series, as it is known, takes place in the spacious living room of founders Ingrid Keller and Nate Bick. The couple, both professional musicians, met as graduate students at Indiana University Bloomington – she in piano, he in voice.

After completing their degrees, they lived for a time in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a loft apartment that soon became a gathering place for their friends. “People were always giving recitals, and we had a loft with space and tall ceilings,” Bick says. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have this kind of thing in the future?’”

The series kicked off with two shows on May 7, each hosting about 60 attendees. Concertgoers crowded into the 15-by-40-foot living room and adjacent space for an afternoon of music by John Corigliano, Bohuslav Martinu, and Johannes Brahms. The evening performance added vocal works by Alban Berg and Giacomo Carissimi.

With no artificial amplification, the music was presented in its purest form. Louder sections were strong without blaring; softer passages were delicate and distinct, like the careful steps of a stalking cat.

Keller serves as the series’ creative director and will play for most performances. Bick, a tenor, sang in May but expects to serve more as a front-of-the-house role, welcoming guests.

Keller says she’s planned the schedule intentionally, with each program’s selections organized around a unifying theme, and hand-picked performers who will play as soloists or in small ensembles.

“Chamber music is this niche that people are perhaps scared of,” Keller says, noting that most individuals hear classical music for the first time at an opera or symphony concert. Chamber music, usually presented by a group of no more than six players, can be offered in smaller venues, creating an intimate experience for the audience. It’s different for the musicians, too, Keller says.

“That’s one of the cool things about chamber music; you’re supposed to read each other’s minds,” she says. “You find musicians you love and trust, and you have the support of other musicians with you.”

Bick, who grew up in Chesterfield, began singing in earnest in high school and credits a choir director and private voice teacher for fostering his dedication.

Music was central to Keller’s life early on. Her Austrian-born mother would take her and her brother to Vienna for the opera, “whether we liked it or not,” she says. In fact, the couple’s living room-concert hall features a wall adorned with posters from the Vienna State Opera House.

Keller began piano lessons at the age of 3 and eventually enrolled in a conservatory preparatory school. The light bulb went on in middle school.

“I had a fabulous teacher who really fed me what I needed,” Keller says. “I feel like every musician has this moment where they figure out how to practice. For me, it was one of those days getting ready for a concerto competition. I realized, if I do this [piece] 15 times, it gets that much better. When I played for my teacher, she asked me what I did. I told her I was tired of sounding bad.”

When the couple moved to Richmond in 2016, Bick joined the development office at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Keller spent much of her time with their daughters – Clara is now 6, and Phoebe, 4 – and worked in a variety of roles, including as coordinator for the Richmond Symphony School of Music’s piano and chamber music program, as rehearsal pianist for the symphony’s chorus, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond.

The couple settled into Richmond and began to think about recreating the casual yet meaningful musical gatherings they had years before. They knew their home in the Fan District wouldn’t work for what they had in mind, so they began house-hunting and even considered purchasing a commercial space. Then they found Marburg.

The house, on Bute Lane, close to the Virginia War Memorial Carillon, was built in 1889 by a German immigrant who named it for his hometown. Renovated by the previous owner, its spacious living room lends itself well to rows of seating. It also has a basement where the audience’s folding chairs can be stored.

The biggest improvement to the house Keller and Bick have made – besides a new kitchen – is to shore up the living room floor, so it can support the 7-foot Ibach grand piano.

“The piano is so heavy – over 1,000 pounds – that we had to get a structural engineer’s report,” Bick says. “In the end, a team went into the crawl space and put in a support beam with footers so the floor wouldn’t buckle.”

The couple has created support of a different kind by formalizing the Belvedere Series as a nonprofit and assembling a board of directors.

“Because [we’re using] an unconventional, less-formal setting, I wanted some structure behind it, and I wanted tax-exempt status,” Keller says. “I don’t want it to be ‘The Ingrid and Nate Show.’ I want it to have the input of others. While I might be making the artistic decisions, I want the feedback of more people.”

The couple also hopes to engage with audience members in ways that aren’t typically available at performances.

“With each program, I’ll talk about the ideas behind [the selections],” Keller says. “How is this piece meaningful for me? How could it be meaningful for others in the room? I don’t want the audience to feel like they have to leave at the end. I want them to come up and talk with me and members of the board. I think it’s fun to talk with non-musicians about what this is. I recently had a candid conversation with a board member. She asked me if I ever make mistakes. Of course I do! Perfection is the goal, but it never happens.”

Before the series officially launched, the couple hosted small house concerts, “to work out kinks and see how it would go,” Bick says, adding that reactions were encouraging.

“We had diverse crowds across age and experience with music,” he says. “They have all walked away and said ‘This is a special experience that I’ve never had.’ We want everybody to go tell their friends so more people can have the same experience.”

Ultimately, Keller says, the goal is the music.

“The point of what musicians do is to communicate. Musicians feed off energy in an audience. If someone comes here, they really want to be here. That’s pretty cool. The musicians want to be here, too. It’s an opportunity to create magic.”

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