This Toronto classical ensemble performs pop-up concerts in living rooms, office buildings and hair salons

This Toronto classical ensemble performs pop-up concerts in living rooms, office buildings and hair salons

Last Saturday, Toronto couple Paula Arciniega and Matt Brooks turned their 2,300-square-foot Wallace Emerson loft into a concert hall. Fifty guests piled into their living room to watch Pocket Concerts, a custom chamber ensemble, put on a pop-up symphony show. “Chamber music is portable,” says Rory McLeod, 33, a violist who plays frequently with the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet orchestras, and shares Pocket Concerts’ artistic director duties with his wife, Emily Rho. The goal, he says, is “to make classical music as accessible as possible.” Here’s a closer look at what went into last weekend’s musical salon.

The hosts, painter Paula Arciniega and design-build firm partner Matt Brooks, are both musicians themselves—she an opera singer, he a former trumpet player:


The entrance to their Geary Avenue home may not be sexy (cabbies often ask Arciniega if she’s sure that’s where she wants to be dropped off), but the interior is. The couple has spent more than $100,000 on renovations since last September, and now live there with their three children. “This is an art studio, first and foremost,” Brooks says. “We just happen to live here.” (The unusual locale is par for the course for Pocket Concerts—they’ve performed in a hair salon, an office, The Toronto Hunt, the Four Seasons and Commerce Court):

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 Photography courtesy of Pocket Concerts

Pockets Concerts hosts have ranged in age from 35 to 80 so far, and audiences have been as small as five people and as big as 120. They offer both private concerts ($500 to more than $2,000, depending on the number of musicians) and public performances (free for the hosts, but ticket sales go directly to the musicians). Saturday’s sold-out event was public and attracted painter Terry Black, architect Bill Dewson, interior designer Jeffrey Douglas, jewellery designer Kate Cash, members of the TSO and others:


The Pocket Concerts musicians—who play with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and other groups—arrived two hours before the event to play in the venue for the first time (they practiced for about 10 hours beforehand, too). Minor adjustments are occasionally needed: during sound check, for example, Brooks hung a blanket under the skylight to block the sun from shining on the piano:


McLeod (speaking below) and Rho (at the piano) founded Pocket Concerts in 2013 after he had received a few invitations to play in peoples’ homes. “My wife wanted to call us ‘Living Room Superstars’—too crazy,” says McLeod. “I wanted to go with ‘Toronto Home Concert Network’—too dry. We met in the middle.” The settings make for a casual, intimate environment that eschews the rigidity of a concert hall. (Once, the musicians sat down with attendees of a birthday party to watch the end of a Blue Jays game before starting a show.) “We try to break down the fourth wall between the audience and performers,” says Rho. “We want the audience to feel like they’re part of the piece instead of like they’re watching TV”:


On Saturday, one of the hosts was literally part of the concert. Arciniega sang part of the late French composer Maurice Ravel’s “Scheherezade,” with her new acrylic painting of the same name on display behind. “The music is so close to the audience that the vibrations move you,” she says. “The musicians are so close that the audience can literally look into their eyes—or see them twitching”:


Halfway through the quintet’s performance of Schubert’s “The Trout,” someone started knocking on the front door. “We’ve had people call and text us to let us know they’re running a few minutes late,” says McLeod. “And yes, we’ve waited for them”:


After the hour-long performance, guests mingled with the musicians over glasses of wine. “It’s very rewarding to interact with the audience face-to-face,” says Rho. “A gentleman came up to me afterwards to tell me that my style of playing was ‘manly and very relentless—the spirit that the music requires.’ It was a compliment.” The hosts hired a staff member from The Greater Good to man the bar:


Chef Luke Hayes of L.U.S.T.—named one of the top 15 secret supper clubs in the world by the Food Network—prepared crispy paneer bites with a spiced spinach puree:


There were also pressed potatoes with a Szechuan kick:


Pocket Concerts’ next gig is a private performance at a condo near Yonge and St. Clair. “Everyone attending lives there,” McLeod says. “Salon music has more impact when it’s on a small-scale. We offer the boutique experience.”


Pocket Concerts performs a public concert on Sunday, Nov. 6 near St. Lawrence Market.