VC recently sat down with violinist Mari Lee to discuss her highly unique, new concert experience.
Founded by Mari and researcher Simon Lee, Salon Séance creates experiences that reveal the timelessness of classical music through live performance and theatrical storytelling.
Framed as a séance, each program invites the audience to the emotional depth of the music and its intersection with history and our lives.
Tell us about the Salon Séance series that you co-founded. When did it start and how has it evolved over the years?
The question that got us started was: “How can we instill curiosity for classical music?” Classical music continues to move us century after century, but it can be intimidating for people who are not familiar with the genre. We wanted to find a way to share the timeless quality of classical music with people who are not yet familiar with it.
We started our production in 2015 after winning Tarisio’s Young Artists Grants. Back then, the format was similar to a lecture concert but with a twist.
Simon, the other co-founder, spoke as the composer in the first-person narrative to give context before we performed the music. An audience member suggested that we make the performance more theatrical, and that’s when we started collaborating with actors, playwrights, directors, and cinematographers. Our mission has remained the same, but the most exciting thing about Salon Séance is that every collaboration has brought new insights and ideas, and we are continuing to evolve, experiment, and learn from each other.
Tell us a little about the idea and guiding concepts of the initiative?
Salon Séance takes audiences on a journey to the emotional depth of the music and its intersection with history and our lives. Framed as a séance, each production explores the life and works of a single composer, and how that speaks to us today through live music and storytelling.
Simon and I came up with the idea when we were in college. I was at a conservatory studying music, and he was at college studying philosophy and history. We were both fascinated by the intersection between music, history, and our lives today, and we felt that this intersection helped reveal the timeless quality of classical music.
As we worked on the concept, we both realized that what we do as a musician and a historian— bringing messages from the past to life through music and words— was in many ways like a séance. That’s where the séance idea came from.
You’ve talked in the past about the premises of "concert theatre" and "interdisciplinary story-telling." Why do you personally feel this is important for audiences today?
In 2010, when I was a sophomore at New England Conservatory, my father fell sick and I took a semester off to work at a restaurant in Tokyo. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who didn’t care for classical music because of its elitism. I wanted them to appreciate the universal quality of classical music, but I didn’t know how to communicate that to them.
One day, I made a playlist with short blurbs about why each piece was special to me, and what I found fascinating about the composers and their lives. When I shared it with them, my colleagues listened and really enjoyed the music. This experience was transformative for me and it has always been my source of inspiration and motivation for this work. I learned that storytelling can bring classical music and people into the same emotional space, and when it works, it is magical.
Do you think these concepts could translate to the traditional classical music concert stage? What do you feel larger concert presenters and orchestras could learn from you and your Salon Séance series experience?
I believe that the concept itself is actually very purist. Every performer goes through the process of searching for the composer’s intentions in the music and how that relates to them personally in order to find their own interpretation. What we are doing is amplifying that process with historical research and dramatization so the audience gets to experience it as part of the performance.
So it does translate very directly to the traditional concert stage. What is different is that we are also interested in how classical music can inspire modern artists to create an experience that stimulates the audience’s imagination and enhances the musical experience. I think there are many ways to present classical music, and I believe the framing can transform the listener’s experience.
Can you tell us about today's performance which will be streamed on The Violin Channel? Which composer will be under the spotlight and what can VC audiences expect to see, hear and feel from the experience?
The film "Debussy in Persona" explores the French composer’s late works and the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist. You will see musicians participate in the drama, hear works by Debussy that you may not have heard before, and feel like you’re at a séance!