Sept. 30 2009 12:00 AM

Series brings chamber music to Old Town

Halfway through the inaugural Absolute Music chamber concert last Friday, jittery flutist Richard Sherman looked at Old Town’s Absolute Gallery, packed to the jewelry counter and beyond with 80-plus classical music fans, some standing. “I’ve seen this in my mind’s eye for so many years,” Sherman said.

There was no alcohol in the punch, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Sherman, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s feisty principal flutist and co-organizer of the series.“I haven’t been this excited since I got a Batman lunch box,” Sherman said. “With a Batman Thermos.”

The other series organizer, Absolute owner Kathy Holcomb, took the little mob scene in stride.

“Apparently there is a need for this,” she said.

For years, Sherman longed to climb down from the Great Hall stage, get out of the classroom and push his love of chamber music into the streets. When Creole Gallery owner Robert Busby brought a series of hit jazz concerts to Old Town, Sherman wanted to do the same for classical music.

He found an unlikely complement in Holcomb. Sherman is sinewy, intense and mercurial, every inch the artist. Holcomb is soft-spoken and laid back, like a hospitable big sister, with a business owner’s patience.

The pair first met more than 15 years ago, when Sherman brought Holcomb a charcoal drawing by his uncle for her to frame and fix.

Looking at the gallery, Sherman thought of fabled evenings at Parisian salons, houses, and coffee shops, before big concert halls swallowed up classical music. Last spring, he and Holcomb decided to take the plunge and plan a series. Throughout the summer, the flutist would pad into the gallery and quiz Holcomb: “Is there a piano yet? How are the posters coming?”

“It’ll be fine,” Holcomb would say.

Sherman easily drafted top local musicians for the series. He is also the artistic director of the Symphony’s chamber series at Plymouth Congregational Church, and many of the Absolute programs share artists and musical works with the Symphony series.

A key piece fell into place when Marshall Music agreed to lug a grand piano in and out of Absolute Gallery for each concert. By Friday night, the pretzels, cheese, cookies and three-tiered festive punch bowl were in place. But would people come?

By intermission, it was clear the first concert was a success. Sherman turned his compulsive energy to the festive punch bowl, lit up and trickling. “Festive punch bowl!” he exclaimed. “This will be a tradition.”

Before Friday’s concert, Holcomb modestly read a quote from Igor Stravinsky about the kinship between art and music. “Music is painted on silence,” she said. “We just provide the space.”

But there’s no space quite like Absolute. Under the high old tin roof and arch of bricks, the art and other gear is packed thickly onto racks and walls, salon-plus- Grandma’s attic-style.

The gallery’s eclectic esthetic made for a stuffed, not stuffy, salon. Bouncy mobiles hovered in the front window and a whimsical yellow taxicab was visible behind the musicians. Earnest pianist Derek Polischuk found his head embedded in a giant watercolor dahlia, hanging behind him.

One last question remained to be settled, but it was a nail-biter for Sherman and Holcomb. How would the gallery sound?

With five wind musicians and a grand piano filling the air, the music had the presence of a pride of lions in a living room.

Every voice in the sextet of horn, clarinet, flute, bassoon and piano sounded warm, clear and distinct. Solos shined as if under a spotlight. Duets, trios and ensembles hung together like cables, fanning out in harmony, binding tightly in unison, all under complete control of the players.

Well – not complete. A few booming bass cars passed by on Grand River Avenue. The tenants living upstairs from the gallery seemed to go to the refrigerator for beer more frequently as the night went on. But the power and zest of the group overcame all distractions. It’s one thing to hear oboist Jan Eberle keen a solo from the big Wharton stage, surrounded by Lansing Symphony legions, and another to hear her speak through the oboe directly at your face. The winds, especially Janine Gaboury’s horn, pushed the audience to the wall.

“We’re really enjoying playing here,” Eberle said. “It’s nice acoustically.”

The warm sound may have come in part from the press of warm bodies.

“Don’t kick me,” Eberle said to a listener seated directly behind her.

All of Friday’s music showcased the deep-breathing romanticism that seems to run through Sherman’s veins. The evening’s closer, a sextet by little-known romantic Ludwig Thuille, rolled about the space in a ravishing, Brahmsian way. The gavotte brought out the dancer in bassoonist Michael Kroth, who figuratively grabbed Sherman for a partner as they tripped off like a couple of debutantes.

Most of the music was lyrical and grand, but a rapidfire encore, “Leaping Dance” by a Hungarian composer named Farkas, gave everybody a chance to show off.

By this time, Sherman’s mood was pitched at high Z above G. As the players took their last exit, he grinned over his shoulder and gave a parting shot to the audience.

“Festive punch bowl!” he yelled.