Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

The Most Atmospheric Concert Setting in DC: The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

Enter the Music Room of the Phillips Collection, and you know you've just come someplace special. Housed in the beautiful dark-paneled former library of the museum's founder, Duncan Phillips, the Music Room is very clearly a space for intimate social gatherings rather than an impersonal public performance space.

There's an idiosyncratic charm to the mix of paintings hung on the walls - everything from a stunning El Greco to moody impressionist street scenes. At the far end of the room, a grand piano is framed by two large, ornate pillars in the front of the room, while the length of chamber leading up to the pillars is absolutely jam-packed with folding chairs, set extremely close together.

And no wonder. The Phillips Collection's renowned Sunday concert series is often an S.R.O. affair, and so the museum has obligingly fit as many seats as it possibly could (around 130-150, by my count) into the space. This is one of the longest-running of Washington's free concert series, now in its 78th year. From October to May, the current season offers 32 outstanding Sunday performances.

Anyone who appreciates modern art should by all means come to the Phillips on the strength of the collection alone. The promotional brochure claims the Phillips is "America's first museum of modern art," and while I'm in no position to assess that claim, there's no denying that Duncan Phillips and his wife, who first opened one room of their house as a memorial gallery back in 1921, had singular taste and vision.

Their long career as collectors/public benefactors is best illustrated by the magnificent works the much-expanded museum houses today -- everything from Matisse to Rothko. The most famous painting in the place is undoubtedly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), a work that glows with life and vitality when seen "in the flesh" the way no reproduction can. Certainly, come to see the Collection itself...

...but then stay for the concert. Every Sunday, the $12 price of admission will also include the afternoon concert, generally held at 4 pm. I'd recommend coming at least a half hour before the concert begins, however, to get a decent seat in the admittedly cramped Music Room -- the sole drawback to this concert series is the limited space. However, if you're willing to sit in less than absolute comfort, you'll be richly rewarded, for the Sunday Concerts are famed for bringing up-and-coming talent to perform.

The phenomenal Glenn Gould played his first American concert in this room, for example. Concertgoers heard a young Jessye Norman sing here, not to mention a hitherto-unheard-of Julliard student named Emmanuel Ax. In short, the Phillips, true to its tradition of finding talent on the rise, is the place to hear someone before they've become SOMEONE (in marquee lights).

I'd gone to several concerts some years back but hadn't gone to any since the Phillips had undergone a renovation several years ago. On our most recent visit, then, we had the pleasure of not only seeing the changes that had taken place in the collection but also finding that the Music Room was still the remarkable place we'd remembered.

The performers that afternoon were an Israeli piano duo, Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg who performed pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. This year (2009) marks the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth, and so his music is prominently featured in just about every concert series in town. The Silver Garburg Duo is a duo in the truest sense -- they perform at the same piano, which is a difficult feat technically, requiring unparalleled musical unity.

The acoustics in the Music Room are ideal for this sort of music, as even very soft passages are crystalline and distinct, such as segments of several of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words," while the roaring cascades of arpeggios in the finale of the Schumann piece filled the room with magnificent sound.

After the concert is the perfect time to wander through the rooms of the Phillips Collection, as the crowd generally disperses quickly. We enjoyed viewing pieces we hadn't seen (a Marc Franz, for example) and, as repeat visitors, seeing the old favorites (muscular, vibrant Van Goghs and whimsical Paul Klees). The museum is open until 6, which gave us approximately an hour more to linger in this superb collection.

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