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Pausa Art House celebrates the art of listening

For decades, Allentown has been the place for members of the arts community to do their one-stop shopping for nightlife entertainment. But until the opening of Pausa Art House in 2013, the majority of that nightlife involved late evenings that turned into early mornings, loud bars and lots of yelling in your companion’s ear in an effort to be heard over the band. Pausa filled the need for something a little bit different in the neighborhood.

“Pausa is the place where people listen to music,” said renowned percussionist, composer and educator John Bacon, a frequent performer at Pausa. “There are plenty of places in that neighborhood to go and talk while the music is playing. Not Pausa.”

Three years after husband and wife Jon and Lazara Nelson opened the renovated home on Wadsworth Place in Allentown as a chamber concert/art gallery space, Pausa has become a music venue like no other in the region. It’s a place musicians love to play and music lovers looking for an intimate musical experience love to frequent. It’s also a welcoming venue for area artists, whose work is hung prominently throughout Pausa in a rotating schedule of openings and exhibitions. (Abstract artist Mary Begley’s exhibit, “The Abstract Tableau,” is running through Feb. 27.)

In a story published in The Buffalo News on the eve of Pausa’s opening, Jon Nelson noted that intimacy and the lack of barrier between musician and audience would be part of the Pausa plan. “When you build a stage, no matter if it’s even 6 inches off the ground, it implies a separation between performer and listener,” he said. “That whole elevated idea of who and what the musicians are, that they are somehow godlike figures, or whatever – we really wanted to remove that barrier.”

The Nelsons never gave up on that initial idea. When you attend a show at Pausa today, you find a welcoming environment, with tables spread throughout the concert space, and the musicians performing on the floor. In keeping with the “chamber concert” ethic – which favors smaller ensembles performing in intimate spaces, initially a chamber or smaller room in a palace – attendees are on equal footing with the performers.

Chamber music was once referred to as “the music of friends,” a nod to the intimate and informal nature of the performances, and Pausa has succeeded in offering a modern-day analog of this tradition.

Sticking with that initial chamber concert idea has, Jon Nelson said, created “an intimate and unique experience for the musicians and audience members. Unfortunately, musicians normally are relegated to a ‘background music’ role, and audiences are not required to listen attentively. At Pausa, the idea is for all involved to experience a heightened awareness of the music that is being played.”

That music encompasses a cross-section of musical idioms, most of which fall beneath the broad umbrella of jazz. Pausa has become a regular stop for regional jazz musicians spanning several generations, and working in areas as diverse as traditional, straight-ahead, bebop, big band, funk and R&B-flavored jazz, and just about every imaginable permutation thereof.

What is striking about Pausa is not just the diversity of the programming and the consistency of high-level musicianship, but the enthusiasm with which it is received by the audience. At Pausa, people pay attention to the music. Talking, fiddling with cellphones, or even loudly clinking glasses while the music is playing would be deemed downright rude.

“Jon and Lazara have created a place that caters to the listener, rather than the talker,” Bacon said. “Musicians are the biggest listeners, so we love being able to hear the music and to make it for others who appreciate the same. We can explore soft dynamics, because the music isn’t being drowned out by talking.”

Interestingly, the musicians playing Pausa on a regular basis tend to end up in the audience when they aren’t performing. While Pausa is a musician hangout, anyone looking for something a bit out of the ordinary will likely feel welcome.

“What makes it so special is, you go there knowing the level of musicianship you will hear, since Jon and Lazara are musicians themselves, and have high standards,” said trumpeter Jim Bohm, who is well acquainted with both sides of the performer/audience member dynamic at Pausa. “From a venue standpoint, it’s like catching great live music in your living room – up close, so you can truly be a part of the experience.”

Lazara Nelson credits Pausa’s preference for “ensembles that use little or no amplification, creating a sound that is appropriate for the space,” and cites the fact that “the musicians are encouraged to explore the natural acoustics of the space” as factors in Pausa’s reputation as one of the most pleasant acoustic environments in town.

None of this happens by accident. When Jon Nelson preps for a show, crafting pleasing acoustic properties is clearly paramount in his mind, as he adjusts balances on the small PA system, moves the microphone above the grand piano a centimeter to create better ambience, and generally works with the musicians during soundcheck to ensure a welcoming sonic environment for musician and patron alike.

The lovingly manipulated and welcoming acoustic properties of the room are mirrored by the space, which blends casual bohemian chic with an unpretentious urban art gallery ethic, while simultaneously implying a warm, folksy, neighborhood wine bar feel.

“Everyone comments on the charm of the place, and that’s entirely due to Lazara,” Jon Nelson said. “When we first looked at the building, she said, ‘That’s the one.’ Once we started doing the renovations, she was the one with the vision. She chose the flooring material, she chose the fabric for the curtains and made them with a friend, she chose the paint colors for the walls and she did the painting. She knew where she wanted the track lighting, and she is the one who gets on a ladder to angle the lights when needed. She curates the art, selecting artists and working with them on what will be displayed and how. She chooses the wines and has developed the menu. She does all of the accounting – that’s a brutal job. She does the shopping on Thursday for the weekend. We curate the music together, and I’m just generally ‘around.’ My job is to stay out of the way at this point. I think it’s pretty unique that one person can handle it all, but she does.

“On the surface, Pausa is both of us, but in reality, it’s Lazara making it go.”

email: jmiers@buffnews.com