The Newton Cultural Department hosted a new series called Parlor Performances to deliver inspiration and diversity to the Newton community during the pandemic. These performances have been successful in their goal of supporting local artists and keeping music alive in the community, according to Director of Newton Cultural Development Paula Gannon.
This six-week series showcased a local performer each week, allowing Newton residents to explore a wide variety of genres and artists. The performances were live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and were available for anyone to attend for free. The performances were recorded and later posted to Facebook, with some gaining over 2,000 shares, according to Gannon.
“It is quite wide-reaching, and there are very many shares on it which tells me that folks are enjoying it, and they’re bringing in other people as viewers as well which is exciting,” Gannon said. “So we feel like we’re really spreading even beyond Newton in terms of these segments.”
Yoni Battat, a Newton resident of three years, performed on Feb. 17 as part of the series. A violinist and graduate of Brandeis University and Boston University, Battat studied classical music and always had music present in his childhood. But now, he focuses on music reflecting his Jewish roots.
“It’s sad obviously not to be performing in front of large groups of people,” Battat said. “But even having one or two people hear my music for the first time was definitely nourishing, and also knowing that a lot of folks around Newton and also around the world got to hear it is really exciting.”
Battat said that he is grateful for the exposure to local residents as well as the broader community from shares on Facebook.
Gannon said the series was started as an effort to adapt musical performances to the COVID-19 era. These concerts were typically held as live performances both indoors and outdoors, but Gannon said they had to be revised due to the closing of venues.
The idea of the Parlor Performances came about after the department relocated during the pandemic to a new building on Centre St., Gannon said, which was previously an old library building. The historical building has an area that feels like the parlor of an old home, which served as Gannon’s inspiration.
“I just had this vision of doing intimate, you know, either solo or duo acts in the parlor, like music used to be done, you know, generations ago where you would just have a performer in your parlor, and that was your night’s entertainment,” Gannon said. “So I just had that vision and we’re happy to be able to do that.”
Gannon said each of the artists chosen were from Newton or the surrounding area and are people who were found from networking or experiences with the cultural department.
“I’ve been very fortunate in the series to get the caliber of musicians that we’ve been able to hire because these talented musicians typically would be probably not even in the country,” Gannon said. “They’d be off touring and performing, but many of them are here because of COVID and we’ve really been the beneficiary of that to be able to sign them to this particular series at this time.”
The sixth and final performance of the series was held virtually on March 3. Gannon said on Feb. 26 that she is hopeful that live performances will be possible due to Governor Charlie Baker’s recent announcement loosening the restrictions on performance venues.
“My hope is way down the road that the parlor does reopen for live in person gatherings like a coffee house or the NPR Tiny Desk kind of concerts, where we’ll be able to have a small group of folks sitting around in the parlor, and enjoying a live concert, but I think that’s going to be a ways off because it is tight quarters and we’ll have to be in a different place in terms of our gathering restrictions before I can see that happen,” Gannon said.
With his half Eastern European and half Iraqi heritage, Battat strove to discover more of his Iraqi side and the music associated with it due to its limited access in contemporary society.
Battat said that the story of his involvement with the organization shows just how local the concert series has strived to be. While playing at the local Crystal Lake Park last fall, he caught the attention of Carol Stapleton who is the parks and recreation manager of Newton and was put in touch with Gannon to become involved with the Parlor Performances.
“As soon as she had the opportunity to showcase my music, she called up when she started this parlor series to give me the opportunity which was greatly appreciated,” Battat said.
Battat said he appreciated the opportunity and enjoyed the experience, but he also expressed a sadness for missing live performances and what could have been.
“Every opportunity these days to perform and to get my music out there is greatly appreciated and exciting in and of itself,” Battat said. “But of course it comes with sadness, remembering what performing used to be like before the pandemic.”
The opportunity of interacting with people, including Gannon and producer Nikola Stajic, in person was also something Battat said he appreciated due to the aspects of solitude that COVID-19 has brought on everyone.
“It was really enlightening to have other people in the room there with me because I have done a few live streams since the pandemic started from my house and that can be a very lonely experience where you can’t necessarily see anyone’s reaction or you know people are listening but you can’t feel them there in the same way,” Battat said.
Through his performance, Battat wanted to showcase the connection and beauty that music can give people, allowing them to heal from the pandemic.
Battat also wished to inspire curiosity in those who listened and spread awareness of the Jewish culture beyond the typical Ashkanazi view and to impact Jewish listeners as well.
“It’s not as much a part of the American Jewish landscape, the music of Middle Eastern of the African Jews, and so I’m always trying in my music to decentralize Ashkanazi music as the only expression of Jewish culture, especially in America, and add more possibilities of what Jewish culture can be and has been for generations,” Battat said.
When asked how his work has been impacted by the pandemic, Battat had a very optimistic approach.
“The good news is that I’ve been writing a lot more music and I’ve had more time at home to invest in my own music and spiritual practice and that’s been nourishing for me,” Battat said.
“And that’s helped me grow in different ways as a musician than I would have performing in front of people.”
Battat’s music was inspired by the Community Creative Fellowship at the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Jewish Philanthropies through which he is working on an album which will be released this summer. This is the first time this fellowship is occurring, and it has allowed Battat to workshop as well as move farther with his music.
“I’m working on an album as part of the fellowship that includes original and traditional music surrounding my Iraqi-Jewish identity and our yearning as human beings to draw closer to our ancestors’ homelands and memories,” Battat said.
Gannon made it clear that the Parlor Performances would not have been possible without the financial support of Newton Community Pride, a non-profit organization who supports the arts as well as culture beautification in Newton. Gannon also said production would not have been possible without Stajic who produced and coordinated all of the videos and audio with the live stream as well as hosting own Parlor Performance through the program.
All of the videos of the performances are on Facebook and will remain up for a few more weeks for the community to see and enjoy at their leisure.
Battat’s biggest takeaway from the Parlor Performance was the aspect of connection it brought, especially during the time of the pandemic.
“Music has the potential to connect with people whether or not they understand the words or whether or not they have a background or frame of reference for the type of music I’m playing or the aesthetic around that music,” Battat said. “So it was encouraging to be able to see that music connect and land on audience’s that aren’t necessarily Jewish, don’t necessarily have an awareness of Iraqi music, especially people who don’t understand Arabic and Hebrew to be able to know that music can resonate despite all that.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Richard Ijeh / Chike Photography