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Vol. 17, no. 3
June/July 2014


Not a Bad Seat in the House 

Story by Larry Lieberman
Photo by Olivier Koning

The room sits silent and empty, but even at rest it’s inviting. Maybe it’s the tiny stage dominated by a vintage Boesendorfer grand piano, or the warm wood-paneled walls and studio sound baffles, or the crowd of simple, well-worn chairs fighting for a share of the scarce remaining real estate. Taken all together, they evoke anticipation and curiosity — though if one word best describes this space, it’s “intimate.” The Atherton Performing Arts Studio, tucked just inside the front door of Hawaii Public Radio’s headquarters, has hosted hundreds of concerts by musicians from around the globe, with every show limited to just seventy-five seats.

The Atherton is where artists like Grammy-winning singer-guitarist John Cruz or bluegrass master Peter Rowan perform virtually toe-to-toe with the audience. “It’s so small, there’s not a bad seat in the house,” noted regular Atherton concertgoer Bob Pedigo during intermission at a show by local Irish band Celtic Waves.

That concert, commemorating the winter solstice, squeezed the entire sevenpiece band plus three Irish dancers into a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet. The concert was sold out, but no worries if you missed it—it was recorded for future broadcast on Hawaii Public Radio’s show Applause in a Small Room, which will feature concerts from the Atherton on a regular basis. There’ll be no shortage of material: The Atherton hosts two sixteen-week seasons each year, with weekly concerts from May through August and November through February.

So what’s it like for the artists who perform there? “It’s different from playing a club gig,” says local guitar hero Peter Bond. “People are really paying attention, so you have to be a little more on your game.” HPR community outreach manager Gene Evans notes that ticket holders can be drawn as much by the warmth and reputation of the room as by the artists. “Whether it’s slack key, classical, folk, Balkan or anything else,” he observes, “people know that shows here will be interesting.” Adds Bond, “At the Atherton it’s not about getting picked up or getting a drink. It’s all about the artist — and that really lets you showcase what you’re doing.”