[JPL] When the Best Seat in the House Is in Your Home

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Mon Jan 19 10:31:19 EST 2009

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January 19, 2009

When the Best Seat in the House Is in Your Home

Frank Ponzio¹s fingers began dancing on the piano keys, and another jazz
concert was under way on the Upper West Side. Hilary Gardner, her voice
sparkling like the diamonds in the tiny heart-shaped pendant around her
neck, began singing ³I¹m a Stranger Here Myself² to a small audience that
included Jacques Fages, a 62-year-old retired elementary school teacher who
sat front and center, about five feet from the band known as the Kurt Weill

Midway through Ms. Gardner¹s opening song, Mr. Fages¹s dog scampered across
the hardwood floor, cutting a path between the bassist, Peter Donovan, and
the drummer, Vito Lesczak, before leaping onto Mr. Fages¹s lap.

For the past 13 months, Mr. Fages has helped organize concerts that have
brought together some of the world¹s better-known jazz musicians, including
the pianists Andy Bey, Peter Mihelich and John Colianni; the bassists Jay
Leonhardt, Shawn McGloin and Joe Martin; and jazz and cabaret singers like
Ms. Gardner, Barbara Fasano and Kate McGarry.

On Sunday, the concert venue remained the same, and Mr. Fages, as usual, had
the best seat in the house ‹ which happens to be in his apartment.

Like a Yankee fan living out a fantasy by playing catch in the backyard with
Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, or an avid moviegoer sitting around the
living room reading scripts with Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn, Mr. Fages, a
jazz aficionado, sits around his living room once a month listening to the
stars of his preferred pastime perform live beneath the bright lights of the
chandelier that hangs from his dining room.

³There isn¹t the distance of the stage, which removes that sense of aura,²
said Mr. Fages, who sat with two dozen guests, all of whom arrived on a
snowy evening to what he refers to as one of ³my little soirees.²

³It¹s a very relaxed atmosphere for both the performers and the audience,²
he said. ³The musicians are nationally and internationally known ‹ it¹s one
of the benefits of living in New York that we are surrounded with so much

On Sunday, the members of the Kurt Weill Project ‹ named for the late German
composer and pianist who wrote ³Mack The Knife² ‹ lugged their instruments
up five floors to Mr. Fages¹s apartment on West 105th Street. The building
has no elevator, but Mr. Fages arranged to have a piano delivered, by crane,
through a bedroom window five years ago.

Rehearsals began at 5 p.m., and 90 minutes later, guests began arriving,
shaking snowflakes off their coats before dropping plates of food, boxes of
chocolate and bottles of wine on the kitchen table.

Mr. Fages, who enjoys cooking, greeted them with a large meal he had spent
the better part of the day preparing, including cheeses, homemade bread, a
fennel and apple salad, Israeli couscous, hummus, tzatziki, codfish
brandade, pasta e fagioli with parmesan shavings and dessert.

³I have been to every one of these get-togethers, and each has been an
incredible experience,² said Mr. Lesczak, 41, a self-described freelance

³The performances are very intimate and come without the external hype and
pressure of performing on the stage,² Mr. Lesczak added. ³What this proves
is that you do not need Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center to make art happen ‹
art can happen anywhere.²

Mr. Fages and Mr. Lesczak, a longtime friend who also lives in the building,
began setting the stage for their monthly performances shortly after the
1898 Steinway piano Mr. Fages purchased on eBay arrived at his windowsill.
Many of Mr. Lesczak¹s musical buddies, some of whom live in the
neighborhood, began trickling into the apartment to rehearse before bigger
gigs around town at places like Blue Note, Sweet Rhythm and Birdland, and
the idea of hosting live performances eventually took shape.

³The artists come and come again because they appreciate the proximity with
the audience, they like the food, they sometimes like to try out new
material and concepts,² Mr. Fages said. ³It serves as a warm-up before a big
gig; they feel more a part of the neighborhood, and for some, it may be
penance for their sins.²

Mr. Fages handles guest requests on a first-come-first-served basis. There
is no admission fee, though Mr. Fages strongly suggests tipping the
performers for their efforts. Next to Ms. Gardner, on a table filled with
wines and cheeses, lay an overturned winter cap filled with $20 bills.

³An environment like this, so up close and personal with the audience, is as
terrifying as it is terrific,² Ms. Gardner said. ³There are no boundaries
here, no walls. But that can lead to many magical exchanges between
performer and audience.²

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