Arts and Entertainment

An empty space, a piano, a vision

First Sundays at the Commons series director Darden Burns.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
First Sundays at the Commons series director Darden Burns.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

When Darden Burns moved to Bainbridge, one of the first things she observed was that no high-caliber piano was available in a public performance space.

“Music has been a big part of my life since I was young, and I wanted to bring great music to Bainbridge Island,” she said.

Twenty-four years and one “long story” later, the First Sundays at the Commons concert series, with its excellent piano and equally stellar performers, is going full force.

Burns, a piano teacher by trade, embarked on her volunteer career as concert producer with a series of rotating house concerts called “Musical Evenings.” The concerts included both professional groups from Seattle and local musicians like herself.

The endeavor lasted an impressive dozen years, but at a certain point outgrew itself. Burns found herself endlessly “schlepping” equipment around, seeing parked cars get stuck in the mud on rainy afternoons, and generally encountering regular inconveniences that, as with any long-term gig, led her to believe it was time to move on to something different. Bigger, even.

She started scouting out venues, one of which was the Bainbridge Commons, that general-purpose space inside the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center. Civic and community groups regularly use the space for rehearsals and gatherings, and the $15-per-hour rental fee for non-profits along with reliable availability makes it one of the best deals in town.

But with its white tile floor, fluorescent lights and array of folding chairs, the Commons wasn’t exactly an intimate concert venue. Yet as Burns peered in that first time, she saw past all that into what the room could become.

“As soon as I went in the building, I went, ‘Whoa, this is the room,’” she said.

Burns then began fundraising for a piano to serve as the series centerpiece. She procured initial contributions from the city and from the Bainbridge Island Rotary in 2000 and then set about convincing potential – and skeptical – private donors that no, the acoustics in the Commons were not intrinsically terrible and yes, the space was the perfect size and would warm up beautifully.

Five years and $30,000 later, she purchased a seven-foot Yamaha C6 – a “very special piano.” As she suspected, the acoustics are “just great.” The concert ambiance, too; the addition of a rug, a black curtain and theatrical lighting transformed the Commons into exactly the intimate venue she envisioned for each concert.

Burns next established the non-profit Bainbridge Community Piano Association to insure it and oversee its maintenance and use by her performers and other community groups.

First Sundays focuses exclusively on “top flight” classical and jazz, most acts from Seattle, many nationally known. Recent acts have included the Bill Anschell Jazz Trio, the Northstar Saxophone Quartet and the Mark Lewis Jazz Trio. Regina Yeh will play a solo piano concert this Sunday, with concerts resuming in September.

While it’s taken a while for word to get out, the series has reached the point where regular attendees don’t even look at the list of upcoming artists anymore, they just show up.

And newcomers are often converts.

“They come to one and say, ‘Wow, are they all this good?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, they are.’”

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