He wanted a Steinway grand; now his collection fills 3 floors
When Richard Marcus stopped into the now-defunct Premier Piano on Westland Avenue eight years ago, he didn't intend to start collecting pianos. He wanted just one, a Steinway grand he'd seen. But they didn't have it anymore, so he settled on a William Knabe instead.
Not long afterward, though, he found a Steinway similar to what he'd sought, so he bought that too. Now, with 13 pianos vying for space in his Dorchester home, he shows no sign of stopping.
''I can't stop collecting," says Marcus, a garrulous 58-year-old child psychiatrist with a cherubic face and an unassuming manner. ''Most people tend to collect one thing and then move on to something else, but I collect a lot of the same thing."
This tendency explains many of the groups of items that Marcus keeps in his three-story Victorian: contemporary paintings from artist-friends and friends of friends; 1950s furniture, of which Eames chairs figure heavily; exotic musical instruments collected from travels to far-flung places; ammonite fossils that recall the days he thought of becoming a paleontologist. Yet pianos present the obvious challenge his other collections do not: space. Even with nearly 6,000 square feet among the three floors, Marcus's space is getting tight.
''Someone said my house used to look like a music school," Marcus says, and when you walk in, the observation seems apt: There is a piano everywhere one turns, in open rooms undefined by the entertainment centers, recliners, or coffee tables that mark the function of rooms in most homes. Because of their size, the pianos catch one's eye first, but there are plenty of other small curiosities throughout the home as well: antique beveled glass plates hanging on the walls, a brass Shiva incarnation resting atop a fireplace, a gargantuan iron sculpture resembling a bisected planet, a Cyrillic poster announcing a concert series at a museum in Moscow. Unadorned hardwood floors and couches and chairs placed at odd angles lend a museumlike ambiance.
Marcus, in a tie-dyed T-shirt and sandals and with salt-and-pepper hair that ends in a clipped tail on the nape of his neck, is an eager curator of his belongings. He enthusiastically flits from his latest paintings by the modern artist Lowell Nesbitt to a newly acquired Thai figurine dating to the 7th century.
But the pianos are his true love. He says he grew enchanted with the instrument and classical music at the age of 5, listening to a recording of Arthur Rubinstein playing Frederic Chopin. Marcus learned to play at around 13, and has played intermittently since. He bought his first piano, a 1947 Baldwin, nearly 30 years ago while living in Los Angeles; it has accompanied him across the country twice and now sits in his bedroom on the third floor. Marcus's subsequent piano purchases, which have been mainly through auctions and private dealers, had to wait until he had more living space, which came when he bought his current home in 1996. Today, he favors pianos made in classical music's romantic era of the 19th and early-20th centuries, exemplified by composers like Chopin and his favorite, Alexander Scriabin.
All but two of Marcus's pianos are grands, which he says ''are more fun in concert, because they make you feel like you're right there."
Over the past three years, he has hosted a small series of concerts at his home, which have featured acquaintances. ''I have a lot of friends who are artists and who deserve to be heard, and I wanted to showcase them here," he says. His most recent performance, in April, featured a concert pianist-friend from Japan. The show, which drew around 65 people, began with the pianos on the first floor, with the pianist and audience working their way up to the second in order to match the songs to the pianos best-suited for them. Marcus has not performed in these concerts, and while he says he might in the future, he is modest about his ability. He says he performed once in the late 1980s at a recital at his piano teacher's home in Los Angeles. ''My teacher said I was pretty good," he recalls. ''People on the street outside who could hear the concert going on said I sounded good."
In hosting the concerts, Marcus hopes to foster a communal tradition similar to the salons of 19th-century Europe. While salons of old tended to center on art or politics, Marcus thinks music could be a similar draw. Living in Los Angeles, he was inspired by artistic gatherings he attended that drew artists, musicians, and people who were neither but were interested in art and music. ''You don't normally hear of these sorts of things in Boston, and when you do, they tend to be exclusive," he says. To his most recent performance, he invited ''the maintenance staff at Harvard Medical School [where he is a lecturer], Nobel laureates, and everyone at the Japanese consulate," in the spirit of making the gatherings open and ''democratic."
An updated salon tradition would seem to be a natural extension of the house's colorful recent past. Just before Marcus moved in, the house was the setting of the 1996 independent film ''Never Met Picasso," which centered on a struggling painter and his actress-mother, played by Margot Kidder of ''Superman" fame. ''I was at a screening of the movie after it came out, and at one point I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, 'There's my kitchen,' " Marcus recalls. ''She looked at me like I was crazy."
Much of ''Never Met Picasso" was filmed on the second floor, which still looks like it could be a painter's abode. In a large sitting room, imposing and brightly streaked canvasses, painted by a friend of Marcus's and inspired by Indian mythology, adorn the walls, which themselves are painted in warm rose and cornflower tones. With the pianos more diffused here -- there's a Mason & Hamlin on one side of the room and the William Knabe on the other -- the space looks more lived-in, with pieces from other collections on more prominent display. On the mantel above the fireplace stands a horn from Sudan and tall, slender figurines from Java, all souvenirs from his frequent travels. Near the center of the room is a cluster of Eames chairs, as if waiting for an audience for one of his concerts.
In this room, there are also artifacts from other areas of Marcus's life, like a tall stack of slim child psychiatry volumes resting on the staircase and two floor-to-ceiling bookcases with a couple of family photographs. Among the photos is a black-and-white portrait of his now-deceased parents, who Marcus describes as ''Zionist freethinkers" who loved music and the arts. ''My father was a good pianist and violin player, but they didn't want to force me to do anything," he recalls. ''It was a big deal when I started playing piano."
Although Marcus at one time thought about pursuing music seriously, he ultimately decided on a more stable profession -- one that allows him to support his artist-friends by buying their works and giving them prominent placement in his home.
''A friend once told me it's important for artists to have patrons," he says. ''So that's what I try to do."
Marcus commissions musical pieces as well; his most recent acquisitions, which are dedicated to the memory of his parents, were written by Daniel Lentz, a composer and close friend whom Marcus met in California. The pieces have already been performed by Lentz in Los Angeles and by another friend in Japan. Marcus would like them to be performed at his home as well, perhaps at his next concert, which could be in the spring. By that time, he might have another piano: He is now on the hunt for a Streicher like the one Johannes Brahms once played and a Blüthner that was Debussy's instrument of choice. And even though he is running out of room, he does not worry much about accommodating new acquisitions.
''Like members of a family, I'll put up with them," he says.