The Living Room Project offers classical concerts–with the comfort of home

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Renée Huynh Barabash (photo courtesy of the artist)

Renée Huynh Barabash (photo courtesy of the artist)

Who among us hasn’t performed in front of the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush-microphone in hand? Or done an impromptu living room recital for a captive audience of sofa-bound siblings, stuffed animals and occasional house guests?

Renée Huynh Barabash admits to it all. And she has transformed the unself-conscious spontaneity of childhood into a sold-out classical concert experience in Burlington living rooms! Explaining The Living Room Project‘s March 2014 inception, she confirms that “its roots go back much further, perhaps to my childhood, when I would perform recitals for my younger sister and our stuffed toys arranged on chairs in front of the piano.” Later, her piano teacher replicated that atmosphere by hosting recitals in her Thornhill home. “We performed, shared music and food and conversation,” Barabash recalls fondly. “My fellow students and their parents quickly felt like family.”

The homey familiarity of the living-room concert caught on in Barabash’s home city of Burlington, where she has lived for over 8 years. During that time, she has hosted many informal listening parties in her own home. And when she moved into her current home with its open-format design and spacious living room, she saw that it was the perfect space for house concerts that are open to the public. She also felt that she shouldn’t be the only artist performing. Instead, she envisioned the Project “as a way to invite more young classical musicians to perform here. The performers themselves are all highly-skilled, friendly and knowledgable,” she adds, “and they love guiding audiences through their chosen programs.”

Two sold-out seasons later, The Living Room Project is gearing up for its anticipated 3rd season, launching with a concert by Mississauga-based pianist Penny Johnson, who is known for her sensitive interpretation  of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. Her performance on October 29 will feature the complete Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias, which she has also recently recorded. Rarely heard in their entirety, the set consists of thirty short pieces, “ranging in mood from ecstatic joy to deep solemnity. Like a box of thirty different chocolates waiting to be sampled,” Johnson smiles. “The Inventions and Sinfonias represent a very accessible program,” she continues, “particularly to those new to classical music, as there will also be a short, friendly talk beforehand to introduce a few ideas to keep in mind while listening.”

Penny Johnson (photo by Christina Birch)

Penny Johnson (photo by Christina Birch)

Johnson is a deeply conscious artist, approaching her musical interpretations from her core belief in the shared responsibility of all artists to deepen the “collective moral conscience of the world in which they live.” She elaborates on this philosophy by explaining that in our present age, where “endless forms of electronic media surround us with information, mainly in the form of visual stimuli, our ability to listen deeply (both to music and to each other) has become increasingly endangered. When we turn on the television or radio, we hear voices speaking faster, more aggressively and with less attention to musical rhythm and nuance than even just thirty years ago.” In her view, the key to fostering compassion and understanding for one another is through “the improvement of our listening abilities.” And because music involves communication through sound, it might just be the most appropriate tool for developing thoughtful listening skills. “There are, of course, numerous musical styles,” she says. “However, it is my firm belief that no music challenges us to listen more deeply than that of Bach.”

In her view, The Living Room Project offers by its intimate design an ideal setting of “acoustic clarity” which maximizes the full impact of listening to Bach’s compositions. In addition to the aural experience, it offers audience members the close contact necessary to observe the performing artists using  their entire bodies to deliver their musical ideas: weight transfer, rotation, down-stroke, flexibility of wrists, arm height, fingering, and pedaling.  When seen up close, she continues, these physical aspects can be appreciated for the amount of practice and preparation they require – similar to athletics. Johnson goes on to highlight the emotional effect of the intimate setting, “particularly for those who have come on their own, to feel a part of a friendly, supportive group, in short, a kind of musical family. It’s wonderful therapy in so many ways.”

Penny Johnson (photo by Christina Birch)

Penny Johnson (photo by Christina Birch)

Though Johnson holds a doctoral degree in music performance – in addition to performing, giving workshops, and teaching master classes — there’s even more to her. She enjoys golf, and is a writer and a skilled skater. And among her list of hobbies is–wait for it–collecting Route 66 memorabilia! And though passionate about Bach, she is curious about other musical disciplines: she admits to particular fondness for music from the 1930s and 40s. “To that end, I am a hit at the senior homes at which I play from time to time,” she quips.

Looking forward to Saturday, Johnson’s performance and Barabash’s vision will yield a unique and relaxing musical experience. Both agree that the hallmark of the Living Room Project concerts is the human connection that is created. “It has been so rewarding to meet new people, to host performers and audiences in my home, and to witness new friendships forming between fellow music-lovers,” Barabash remarks. Johnson gratefully acknowledges the folks at The Living Room Project “for working as hard as they do to ensure that people outside of Toronto have opportunities to experience quality music performed by local professionals . . . and all of this in a friendly setting.” Barabash, too, is grateful for all the support she has received so far–and excited to see what growth this season will bring. “Our audiences are always warm and enthusiastic. We have seen many new friendships form over chamber music and wine!”

So this Saturday, grab a ticket and a glass . . . and come make yourself at home.

News You Can Use

What: The Living-Room Project presents Penny Johnson performing the complete Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias by J.S. Bach

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: October 29, 2016, 7 pm

For Information and Tickets:

© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Posted in Music, Uncategorized and tagged , , .


  1. Thank you, Renée, for your enthusiasm and hard work in sharing your talent and love of music with so many people.

    Best of luck in the upcoming season!

  2. Dear Mrs. G,

    Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t be where I am today without your teaching and wisdom, long after my days as your student!

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