Up Close and Personal
At the inception of the College, Parrish Hall filled many roles; as dormitory, dining hall, classroom space, and chemistry lab, to name a few. Throughout Swarthmore’s history, Parrish has undergone several transformations, both figurative and literal, and now serves as the center of student life and a symbol of the College’s enduring presence.
On Monday afternoons, its east parlor also acts as an intimate performance space for the music program’s Lunch Hour Concert Series, which showcases student ensembles and faculty groups alike. It is a far cry from the 450-seat concert hall in Lang Music Building, but the informal setting works to its advantage.
For one, the absence of physical separation translates to more active engagement between musician and spectator; audience members are not passive receivers of the performance, but instead converse through their facial expressions and body language, giving performers immediate feedback in a dialogue without words.
“I really like it when the audience members are closer because it feels more like I'm interacting with the audience rather than just playing for them,” says pianist Kevin Lai ‘18, an Honors economics and mathematics major and from Dallas, Tex., who performed a Grieg Cello Sonata with cellist Kyle Yee ‘19, an Honors computer science and physics major from Melrose, Mass.
“I can see the faces of my friends and faculty that show up, rather than just knowing that there is some blob of people sitting out in the audience," he says.
Lunchtime traffic in and out of Parrish also exposes these concerts to a larger audience, one that might not be aware of the more traditional ones or have the desire to attend them regularly. The open space allows curious, would-be concertgoers to pop in and head out as their schedule permits.
“If you advertise a classical music concert, maybe somebody wouldn’t show up, but if they happen upon a really intense or really moving or really beautiful piece, then their preconceptions of style are less important,” explains lecturer and College orchestra conductor Andrew Hauze ‘04.
The concert series dates back to 2011 when the President’s Office purchased a restored Steinway piano, replacing an instrument that was in a “very sad state of disrepair,” according to Hauze. He began giving 15-minute, ad hoc concerts a few times each semester and would sometimes invite friends for a more formal program.
“I thought, this is such a central hub of campus that it would be nice to have regular or at least semi-regular informal concerts so anybody in the College community could drop by and hear live music,” he says.
One problem, however, was that informality could lead to irregularity as Hauze’s schedule dictated if and when the concerts would happen. Midday Monday concerts in Lang helped fill the void, but the significant demands of a full-length concert also led to infrequent student performances and low attendance.
This past year, however, manager of programming, production, and publicity Jenny Honig came up with the idea of a structured weekly event in the parlor. The efforts of concert and production intern Desta Pulley ‘17 produced a more varied and robust concert series slate, which included chamber music groups, pianists with vocal accompaniment, and even a bluegrass duo.
“Changing it to shorter, more frequent, and more centrally located performances made it a lot more appealing and accessible to students, faculty, and staff who wanted to drop by or otherwise spend less time going to a concert,” says Pulley, who was herself a music minor at the College.
“Students have been able to get more individual performance opportunities, and their friends and peers are more motivated to come see them in a lower-commitment, more casual format.”
Every performance is also livestreamed and archived on the program’s Facebook page for those unable to attend in person.
Performers are given wide latitude in determining the program, which makes every concert unique. Last Monday, for example, pianist Lili Tobias ‘19, an Honors linguistics and music major from New York, N.Y., performed two original pieces and a song from the animated television show “Steven Universe”, among other works.
One of her compositions was a song called “Her Words,” which featured no vowel sounds and required the help of vocal quartet comprised of Rebecca Regan '19, an Honors English literature major from Buffalo, N.Y., Emma Mogavero '20, a theater major from Jericho, N.Y., Ben Warren '19, a mathematics major from Georgetown, Texas, and Ziv Stern '20, an Honors linguistics major from the Bronx, N.Y.
“We really like to sing on vowels and that’s the convention, so I wanted to write a piece that doesn’t do that,” said Tobias in an introduction to the piece, which exclusively used syllabic consonants such as the r sound in “word.” The song challenged the audience and performers, testing their preconceived notions about how music ought to sound.
In the same way, the Lunch Hour Concert Series challenges these conventions by transforming the familiar setting of Parrish parlor into an unexpected conduit of artistic expression. Live music, classical or otherwise, need not be restricted to concert halls or those above a certain age; there is something out there for everyone, if even they don’t yet realize it. As the series continues to grow, its offerings will diversify and that “something” will become more accessible as a result.
“There are a lot of students here who play instruments or genres that aren't typically associated with Western classical music, " Pulley says, "and this concert series has started to bring those people out of the woodwork, so I'm hoping that trend continues."