A Juilliard-trained classical pianist, Kimball Gallagher is on a quest to revive the lost era of salon concerts. He believes in the intimacy of the performance and the immediate impact of the experience. He also believes in the creation of a lasting relationship between the performer and the listener. Kimball's passion for classical music and the importance of musical education has led him to embark on an unusual 88-concert international tour. Each stop represents one of the 88 piano keys. It's an adventure that has taken him from the US to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He is planning to wrap the tour with a celebration concert at Carnegie Hall in 2014. From the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul to the home of Uma Thurman in New York, Kimball is changing the way we view performer-audience connections with his own brand of independent entrepreneurial thinking.
RL: Where did the idea for the 88-Key Concert Tour come from? How did you turn that idea into a reality?
KG: When I was in my undergraduate at Rice University, a professor introduced me to Jacob Deegan, who had decided to have a concert series in his home. He told me, "Home concerts seem to be viewed as something someone does to get ready for the real concert [at the public venue], but I feel home concerts are the real concert. " After that, I started viewing homes very differently. Every time I went to a different home, I found myself evaluating it for its concert readiness and often asking homeowners to become concert hosts. A few years after that, when I graduated from Juilliard and needed a piano, I organized, with lots of support and ideas from friends and patrons, a fundraiser to buy my own piano. The cost of the piano was divided by 88 and donations were given on a key-by-key basis. In the end 54 people gave $25,000. A few years after this, I was looking for a way to create more momentum with the home concerts I was doing and decided to package them as an 88 concert tour to use the momentum of the piano fundraiser. The tour became a reality one step at a time. First, by simply making proposals and inquiries with people whose homes and personalities seemed to suit the idea. Most of the homes I performed at, at the beginning of the tour, were homes where concerts had not previously taken place. By the 17th concert of the tour, I had been invited to Afghanistan to be in residence at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and played a concert there. This was a salon style concert, so I decided to count it. Then there was a decision to take the tour international. Since then, I've been to over 16 countries. Each concert also includes a personalized composition written specifically for the concert. Often the pieces of music start with the host's or hosts' names spelled out in musical notes, and those notes are used to create a piece of music. The end of the tour will include major venues on each continent with the final concert at Carnegie Hall in the Spring of 2014.
RL: In today's musical climate, what do you feel are the benefits to reviving the salon culture?
KG: The intimacy and immediacy of the space provide the audience with a special, visceral experience of the music and a more personal connection to the performer. Any space can be a concert venue, opening up the possibility for any homeowner to be a concert presenter for their friends. In general, I hear from audiences that the quality of their experience is richer at a private concert than a large public one. I think one of the benefits is that it represents a concrete way to build new audiences one person at a time.
RL: From a performance perspective, how is your experience different in a concert setting compared to a rock show setting?
KG: The main thing is that the audience is seated and, generally speaking, quiet. I don't want my audiences to feel suffocated or forcibly subdued into being quiet but many of the special communicative moments of a concert are quiet and a group silence, when achieved with everyone as a willing participant, is a space where some special moments can be happen.
RL: What is your most memorable show to date?
KG: Perhaps playing Schubert's final piano sonata for an audience at the German Embassy in Kabul Afghanistan. The contrast of a metaphysical, soulful piece of music in the midst of a war-zone was striking. The atmosphere at the Embassy was warm and inviting and, in every way, seemed to contrast media portrayals of the war.
RL: Do you think that being a musician and being an entrepreneur are interchangeable these days? What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of that?
KG: I can't give, of course, a first-hand account of being a musician in any other era except for right now. But it does seem, more and more, that musicians have to create their own following and generate many of their own opportunities. Personally, I book my own international tours, set up my own partnerships, find my own students, and do mostly my own publicity. The benefits are that you can shape and mold your own career completely according to your own vision. The drawbacks are that it is an enormous amount of effort and it is an endless challenge to balance creative musical work with promotion, planning, administrative work, etc.
RL: You're active in New York, yet you've experienced a lot of different parts of the world. Can you give us your perspective on NYC as a musical city? What do you feel are its best bits? What do you feel it needs to work on?
KG: New York always strikes me as incredible in its musical diversity and consistent high quality. New Yorkers themselves easily become jaded but the fact is, there are countless venues for so many genres of music that showcase a revolving door of remarkable talent. I wouldn't want to presume to criticize it really. . . it's a competitive place with a huge number of very gifted people. I find it difficult, actually, to get creative work done in such a kinetic and energetically charged environment.
RL: What do you think are the main things musicians need to focus on today if they want to achieve a certain level of success living through their art? What has been the greatest tool (apart from playing live) that you've been able to use to build your audience?
KG: To me, the most important thing has been creating creative partnerships and creating your own pool of clients, as well as an audience. In my case, a "client" would be a house concert host who would like to have a concert personalized for a special occasion. To give some examples: In Tunisia, the interim finance minister after the revolution was a composer as well as a banker. He organized a concert for the interim Tunisian government where I performed many of his piano works, along with a featured Tunisian violinist and a featured Tunisian singer. In a private home in New Hampshire, I composed a personalized short piano piece for the hosts based on their names (spelling out their names in musical notes using a special system) and also chose some works that were composed on the date that their historic home was built. In Egypt next year, I'm commissioning a work by a NY-based Egyptian-American composer for a string orchestra in Egypt, with myself, and an Egyptian singer using a special Egyptian text. The funding for this will come from playing in private homes in Washington DC and Cairo for families who will like to entertain their guests at home and support causes that promote cross-cultural interaction. This is definitely a way to diversify an audience and also to bring enhanced value to an audience at home. . . that is, by sharing these experiences with them.
RL: How have the shifts in the industry, (the disintegration of most major labels, the rise of social media, music being exchanged freely, etc. . . ) affected you as a musician?
KG: I think I'm a personality that chooses to be a bit on the outside of things. I decided to focus on salon style concerts in private homes because I enjoy those sorts of concerts and I believe I would be doing them regardless of the state of the music industry. Same with the fundraising. As it is, it has inadvertently led to speaking engagements at music conservatories around the US and the World, speaking about entrepreneurship for musicians. So I think that's the biggest way.
RL: Do you believe that music should be free? If yes, in what context? If no, why not?
KG: I encourage artists to donate music and performances and to do so in a way where the value is retained. If I play for free, I want the people at the concert to know I donated a performance, and if it's for a fundraiser, I want the organizers to know that the performance is normally valued at such and such. The same way any other donated service would be valued. Also, I encourage artists to follow-up on gifts of CDs and mp3s. Ask for reviews. Honestly, I haven't done this nearly as much as I feel I should. . . but then, essentially, you can trade a CD for an online review. This gentlemen's agreement can create online legitimacy and that can be quite valuable. So, in general, I think we should be asking, "If we are going to strategically give a CD away or donate a performance, how are we going to remain engaged with the recipient?"Artists definitely need to remember their own value regardless of a dollar amount placed on a performance or a recording. In many cases, I think it's important for artists to educate people on what it takes to be a musician. I didn't just wake up one day and start playing the piano. It really took 25 years of constant practicing and sacrifices of all kinds to make it happen.
RL: Where do you see the future of music heading?
KG: I can see a lot more entrepreneurship. Also, I can see music showing up in what are now considered to be unlikely contexts, unlikely venues, with unlikely business partnerships. Musicians engaging with their audiences more deeply.
RL: How do you define success?
KG: Being able to do what you would like to do when you would like to do it.
RL: Do you have any advice for musicians out there about to embark on a life in music?
KG: Put as much creativity into creating the relationships that will support your career as you do into creating your music.
At the time of this interview, Kimball was in Tunisia.