S.J.'s unlikely music spot

Mercury News

If you've ever been to Le Petit Trianon, the former rooming house that's now a hot house for classical music in the South Bay, you will have seen Keith Watt. He's the owner, standing with a flashlight outside his little theater after every performance, saying, "Thank you for coming to the Trianon theater, and watch your step.''

It's the sort of personal touch that has helped turn the downtown San Jose theater into an important cultural destination. Concert pianist Olga Kern performed at New York's Carnegie Hall this week; she played at Trianon in September for 380 people, a full house. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, performing this weekend with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, gave a Trianon recital in January. It was a packed, in-crowd event in San Jose's secret performance space.

Set inside a French Greek Revival mansion on a seedy stretch of North Fifth Street, Le Petit Trianon may seem an unlikely hot spot. But audiences and musicians increasingly relish its intimacy and sensational acoustics. "It is the best," says conductor Barbara Day Turner, whose San Jose Chamber Orchestra has performed there since 1991. She likens the Trianon to a "European salon-style recital hall" where music "envelops the audience and players."

Colorful history

The hall's transformation is comical to those who know its history. Le Petit Trianon was built as a Christian Assembly church in the 1920s. Watt bought it (and three adjacent properties) in 1982 for $437,000, and ran it as a rooming house. He opened it to performances in 1988, and concertgoers grew accustomed to seeing tenants in bathrobes walking the hallways. Day Turner remembers "the smell of bacon cooking while conducting 'Verklarte Nach' " by Arnold Schonberg.

The hall's improvements -- and newfound prestigiousness -- are due to Watt, a former door-to-door encyclopedia salesman and San Jose post office clerk who started buying downtown real estate in the 1960s, and has subsidized Trianon with the proceeds from his rental properties for years. "I have no children. I have no grandchildren,'' says Watt, 67, who grew up in Richmond, Ind., where his father owned a casket factory. "But my grandmother had been a concert pianist, and my mother played a Chickering piano in our house, and so when I saw this place, I thought, 'Well, maybe we can have some music here.'"

Watt is an old-fashioned, low-profile community advocate. He is a founder of Guadalupe River Park and Gardens, a three-mile greenscape from the Children's Discovery Museum to San Jose International Airport slated to open next year. Trianon, until recently, was a financial debacle, despite -- or perhaps because of -- Watt's devotion. For years, he rented it out to performers for little money, bought cheese platters and sodas at Albertsons for intermissions, vacuumed the hall before concerts, and helped park cars as patrons arrived. He "realized that some day people will appreciate it and we'll get more business," he says.

The place lost money for a long time, between $150,000 and $250,000 a year, which Watt covered out of the profits from his Mother Olson's Inn, the name of his real estate company. (The company owns 23 properties in downtown San Jose.) The operating budget gap has been closed the past few years, as bookings have increased and Watt has refined his business plan. But he still pays for capital improvements out of his pocket: a new roof, a tiled courtyard, a $103,000 Steinway D concert grand piano.

His goal is to keep strengthening the hall's finances and establish a non-profit foundation to run the place. Essentially, "Keith's vision is to gift it to the community as a performing arts theater," says Norval Nelson, a friend who three years ago gave up his job as general manager of San Francisco's Sir Francis Drake Hotel to work for Watt as vice president of operations.

Le Petit Trianon -- named for a chateau at Versailles, outside Paris -- sits between a church and a halfway house, half a block from where San Jose's new City Hall is rising on Santa Clara Street. A seven-story parking garage is planned for the empty lot directly across the street from the theater. Suddenly, Trianon is at the center of the action.

This year, Trianon will host about 1,000 events. These include the San Jose Chamber Music Society's high-level concert series; recitals by celebrated pianists; and scores of recitals by piano students. They also include weddings, church services and an Iranian Comedy night.


Most bookings are made by marketer Hope Shapiro, whom Watt hired two years ago and who is married to Nelson's stepson.  Watt, Nelson and Shapiro are like mother hens overseeing the operation, generating income from booking and by renting 20 officesformerly rooms for men in bathrobesin the hallways around the concert hall.  Tenants include Silicon Valley Gay Men's Chorus, the Santa Clara County Park Rangers Association, a lingerie saleswomen and a CPA.


Great acoustics


Watt toured a visitor through his theater last week as that night's performers were arriving:  The Monokrome Flute Quartet, led by Santa Clara flutist Elena Yarritu.  She made her Carnegie Hall debut in November, at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall, but prefers the sound at Trianon.  It almost has perfect acoustics, the perfect balance of liveliness and just enough…reverb," she told Watt.  "Carnegie Hall is a little bit more dead.  You sound fine, but you feel a little dry."


Watt didn't seem at all surprised by the appraisal.  Trianon  "has an echo in the hall," he explained to Yarritu, "and the echo fills in behind you, so you actually sound a little better than you are.  It's like singing in the shower."


Earlier, Watt had claimed to be cutting back on his hours at the theater, but when Monokroma began its program at 8 p.m., he was seated in Trianon's tiny balcony.  "I like to catch a little of everything," he said.  "I'll stay half an hour."


The music was beguiling, rolling like clouds through the hall.  An hour later, as the concert wound down, Watts was still up there in the balcony, a proud papa looking out over his marvelous little theater.

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