in: News & Features

September 28, 2009

Marcus Thompson Heads BCMS

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Marcus Thompson, the new Artistic Director of the Boston Chamber Music Society, will, (on Sunday, October 18, 7:30 at Sanders Theater) be performing with his colleagues again—but for the first time as their director. The Boston Musical Intelligencer wanted to hear from him what to listen to and look for in the coming subscription season and in BCMS’s future.

<p>BMInt. Staff Photo</p>

BMInt. Staff Photo

BMInt.: Marcus, from the look of the new brochure, a lot seems to be happening at BCMS this year. Where is that organization headed under your leadership and what can we expect to hear that’s different?

M. First, let me thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and to your readers. We are really excited about the possibilities that lie ahead for BCMS.  Many artistic and organizational challenges have been on our minds since we undertook a self-study and started thinking about how we need to address our second quarter century. We are in a time of renewal. We want to build our audience in and around Boston, connect to the next generations, seek ways to fit better with local institutions –all while continuing to do some of the most exciting music making in Boston.

BMIint.: Last season there were no BCMS concerts in Jordan Hall and no mention of it in the coming season. Is BCMS no longer playing pairs of concerts in the city?

M. We love Jordan Hall. We sound great in Jordan Hall! But Fridays after work are a tough time to fill the house. It became increasing hard to justify the expense.

We wanted to take a break and figure out how we made it work well for so many years. So, we’re looking carefully at audience building, other venues and formats, including run-outs, and hoping to renew the pairs, and, in time, our presence in Jordan Hall.

BMInt.:  One of the first things I noticed in your programming was that you are doing two works from the 21st century, both Boston Premieres, within the first two concerts. How is that going to sit with your more traditional audience?

Well, I don’t think it will be a shock. We receive a significant number of requests for something new and challenging to listen to. Our programming from the recent past has included Crumb Black Angels, Messaien Quartet for the End of Time, Schnittke Piano Quintet, Shostakovitch Piano Trio and Piano Quintet, among others, all of which have been embraced with the same audience excitement and warmth that one expects for Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Of course, each of these recent works provides a very special spiritual experience, one that connects immediately and deeply with the audience in a way that is familiar. Rather than programming just for experiment and introduction, we are trying to find and present recent work that our Artist Members know from personal experience to be important for our audience to hear.

Piano Trio #2 by John Harbison and the Penderecki Sextet for Piano, String Trio, clarinet and horn are two works that fill the bill. I spoke recently about the Trio with Rieko Aizawa, the pianist who premiered John’s piece, and who appeared in the last of our four concert summer series at Longy. She was ecstatic and had an endless supply of superlatives.  You see, that’s what I’m looking for. You can take that feeling directly to the audience. I had a similar experience with the Penderecki. There it was sticking out of library shelf at MIT. I had never heard of the piece. I love Penderecki’s music since I played the Cadenza for solo viola, the Viola Concerto, the Clarinet Quartet, and have heard Lux Aeterna and the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. His music is very powerful. On first hearing I was hungry for more. I replayed the recording almost disbelieving that I had found such a masterpiece that no one else knew! And then I found out: lots of artists knew it, and some had already played it in New York or other festivals. So there! Confirmed! We have to do it here. Then for some unknown reason I looked it up on YouTube. Believe it or not, I found a video clip of a rehearsal for the premiere in which the cellist was Rostropovitch and the violist Yuri Bashmet! They were asked on camera what they thought of the piece. You should hear Rostropovitch’s answer. He pretty much said there are only about five composers of new music whose work he regards as truly great, and that Penderecki is one of them. Score!

BMInt.: Well, OK.  But, I also see you’re not really taking big chances here. Each of those appears after familiar Romantics and following intermission by a major work of Brahms!

Right. But, this is where I direct you a little farther into the season brochure: to a number of places where the 20th Century is well represented, and after our series of Brahms works stretching from the end of last season, through summer and into the fall, comes to an end.

With the support of a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a match from the Boston Chamber Music Society Foundation, we are embarking on a three-week residency at MIT with a series of multi-media concerts at Kresge Auditorium next January that we are calling Winter Festival. These concerts were assembled around the subject of Time and are complemented by a series of free afternoon forums with scientists, artists, and scholars, discussing various aspects related to their work on Time and the music. In the course of the week, as part of this residency, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, the rehearsals will be free and open to the public as well as the MIT community, and there will be opportunities to discuss the music with the BCMS performers.

The composers represented include Andrew Imbrie, Libby Larsen, George Crumb, Peter Child, Charles Martin Loeffler, William Grant Still and Lukas Foss. The practice of escorting the new with traditional will be reversed a bit with this American-made music escorting Ravel, Beethoven, Dvorak and Mozart.

In February, back at Sanders Theater, we will be featuring our pianists playing four-hand transcriptions of Mozart and Beethoven, along with two piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms. That whole concert will be followed by one in March that takes us over the hump from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth- in early and transitional works of some of the most influential Viennese masters: Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and R. Strauss. This concert has already generated a lot of interest because of the huge number works on the program. Suffice it to say that some range in length from one and a half to eleven minutes. The Strauss on the second half, as one might expect, is closer to forty!

BMInt.: In the April concert I see a name that might be unfamiliar to most people. Röntgen?

M. Yes, that’s Julius Röntgen, not Wilhelm, the one who first detected and produced x-ray’s, who I’m told was a cousin! I first encountered his name while sitting in the balcony at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Like many great halls they have names of composers on display in a frieze around the hall. I was curious what made him so important and came to find out he is one of the leading Dutch composers of the early 20th century. In fact, he was, among Fuchs, Dvorak, Knorr and Novak, one of Brahms’ favorite young composers. Most of his music was not published at the time I was there a decade ago, so I bought facsimiles of manuscripts of his chamber music, dozens of them, from a museum in The Hague. Lyrische Gänge or Lyric Journeys was not among them. I found that one later when a Dutch colleague released the premiere recording.

These are a series of songs with piano for mezzo and viola that are clearly a response to Brahms’ late songs, Op. 91, for the same combination. Rather than two, like Brahms’ Gestille Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied, there are five, on the same subject –the journey towards rest– with the last one of truly significant length, like Der Abschied, the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which also addresses that subject. These songs are from the 1920’s but recall the style of Schumann and early Brahms. They are of unspeakable beauty and could probably be counted as our third Boston Premiere of the season. Krista River will be our guest for that concert.

BMInt: Are these the only songs in the series? I hear that BCMS audiences enjoy great singing.

M. No, I didn’t mention the actual piece we’re doing by Lukas Foss that concludes the Winter Festival. It’s an elaborate work involving lots of percussion and soprano. Judith Kellock, a former Bostonian now at Cornell, will be joining us for that. She is the one who made the recording of the chamber version with Lukas Foss.

BMInt.: I’ve been curious about the personnel of BCMS and you’ve just mentioned these two guests. Who are the members? Who are the guests? And what will be the status of Ron Thomas, the founder.

Part of our renewal is to seek and appoint artist members with whom we work well, who are attractive to our audiences, and who can take us forward into the next generation. Violinist, Harumi Rhodes will join Ida Levin on our roster, and distinguished violist Roger Tapping will join me; Fenwick Smith, flute and Tom Hill, clarinet will continue along with our pianists Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson. Ron remains our only cellist member even as we have many distinguished guests. We expect to add members in each of the next few years so that transitions are as smooth as possible. We have an abundance of wonderful guests and regulars with whom we will continue to work. Many right here from Boston represent the best of our local ensembles. Their presence allows our group the opportunity to import fresh ideas and perspectives and keep that All-Star festival feeling. I mentioned our two singers because their names and photos were not available at the time we went to press.

BMInt.: With all the flexibility and change at BCMS, I know there are some who are wondering why you don’t use this opportunity to do more string quartets, or for that matter add a string quartet to your membership?

Right now our commitment is to programming and performing chamber works for unmarried combinations. There’s plenty of that, just as there are many opportunities to hear many of the world’s great quartets who are currently in residence or on the faculties of our local institutions like NEC, BU, Brandeis, and Longy. In case you haven’t noticed there are some string quartets in our programming this season. The title of Peter Child’s Skyscraper Symphony in the middle of the Winter Festival doesn’t betray the fact that it is a string quartet. In fact, it is a string quartet he wrote to accompany and illustrate a black and white film about American Skyscrapers from the early 1900’s. After intermission it will be followed by the rarely heard Dvorak “American” Viola Quintet, that’s string quartet plus viola, with Roger Tapping and me together for the first time in our series. That is an especially interesting juxtaposition with a recent American piece about the city, and a work written in America by a Czech that glorifies the American prairie.

Our last concert in May contains two and a half string quartets. The Haydn Op. 76 #3, also known as the “Quinten,” and the Chausson Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet are placed with the Villa-Lobos Duo for violin and viola (that’s where you get the half!) The Villa-Lobos will feature Roger and Harumi, our two newest Artist Members. All three of the pieces are based on the same three notes, albeit in different orders! We think our first commitment to the string quartet literature should be one that does not duplicate the repertoire of married ensembles. Fortunately, there’s lots of good music to choose from. Stay tuned.

BMInt.: Marcus, this certainly gives us a window into what I hope will be a very successful season for you and for BCMS. Thanks for speaking with us.

M. Thanks for the opportunity. I’d love to come back and say more about our Winter Festival.

1 Comment

  1. I thought this was an excellent interview and, although my husband and I have subscribed to the BCMS concerts for many years, I learned much about the workings of the group, how programs are chosen and balanced, and how new practices are being introduced. Thank you to the Boston Musical Intelligencer!

    Comment by Dotty Burstein — October 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm

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