The last interview here of Marcus Thompson, violist and artistic director of Boston Chamber Music Society, led us into BCMS’s coming season, closing with a hint about a new Winter Festival, which will consist of three panel discussions in the late afternoons, followed by concerts at 8 pm (with a chance for participants to purchase a box supper) on consecutive Saturdays— January 9, 16 and 23 —at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. As news of the BCMS Winter Festival and Forums and its theme, “Musical Time,” emerged, we asked Marcus what makes this festival tick and how it came about.
BMint: We’re just starting to see the press release and postings and find this all a bit daunting. It’s clearly larger than just three concerts of mostly contemporary music organized around the theme of “Musical Time” that appears in your season brochure. What are Beethoven, Dvorak and Mozart doing here?
MT: First of all, thanks for taking the time to have me back. The older works are enjoyable pieces to play and to hear, and they, along with the Ravel Piano Trio you haven’t mentioned, were chosen to fit or show aspects of the overall theme.
BMint: Are these titles, “Music as Shape,” “Music as Memory,” “Music as Subject and Substance.” marketing fantasies, or is there something about time that one can glean just by listening? Would I know these pieces had something to do with time if a title did not appear?
MT: Well, I don’t know. Could be. Context is everything, you know. These pieces in another concert may highlight other aspects. And any great work transcends our ability to describe it in mere words. The titles just direct our attention to one aspect of listening by which we can consider the unfamiliar and reconsider the familiar. Musical Time, and time in general, are huge and endless topics that can fascinate as well as confuse. We hope to raise interest and spark a conversation.
BMint: So, this themed festival is all your idea?
MT: Actually, the idea grew from the confluence of events. There were conversations with Music and Theater Arts colleagues at MIT who are continually interested in expanding our contact with students and their exposure to the arts, and there are the goals expressed by our BCMS Board: to expand our audience through outreach and new repertoire, seek new venues and formats for presenting chamber music, and find novel ways to explain what we do. So I was hearing virtually the same message both inside and outside the academy when word of a Request for Proposals came from the National Endowment for the Arts for funds to present concerts of American chamber music with the support of an American Masterpieces grant.
Like any presenter, especially these days, I am inclined to be wary of programming works that might drive the public away. However, I also realize that there is genuine interest in the new, in quality, in ideas, and in just having a good time. It also occurred to me that during MIT’s January Independent Activities Period, when the Institute is a virtual Open House and is open to new experiences and ideas, we could take a break from our Harvard venue and try something new as well. [ed: Boston Chamber Music Society concerts are held regularly at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.]
BMint: Is there a reason for the sequence of the concerts?
MT: Well, if you don’t mind a little sausage-making and free association. There was a realization that there are words and concepts associated with MIT and the sciences that are also meaningful in making sense of art: Architecture (or shape), Memory (both in computing and cognition), and Substance, as in material manipulation and the mystery of dark matter. Believe it or not, musicians create, rehearse and teach in terms of shaping phrases, or seek a sense of reminiscence, recall, or return; and observe and employ density, weight, and texture of the material to control how the music moves in time.
Once we were able to assemble some of ‘greatest hits’ from our repertoire and from the American scene, the order was clear. One can point out the titled aspects prominently displayed, even as all and much more are present.
We placed the Ravel Piano Trio in the first concert, “Music as Shape,” because, among so many features such as an opening that sounds like a distant memory, it has an unmistakable dramatic arch shape in the third movement, Passacaglia. It shares the program with Libby Larsen’s Black Bird, Red Hills, based of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, that show passage of time on an arch-shaped landscape. George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965) is a piece he wrote to describe an arch form, as well.
The second concert focuses on memory on many levels and includes a black-and-white film from 1929 about skyscrapers, for which Peter Child in 2004 wrote Skyscraper Symphony for string quartet. The issues involved in creating music timed to the various segments and scenes is, well, fascinating. Beethoven’s first string trio is his reaction to Mozart’s string trio Divertimento, written five years earlier. The Dvorak Viola Quintet, sometimes called “The American” and written in Iowa in 1893 recalls the prairie in apposition to the cityscapes of 25 years later illustrated in Skycraper Symphony.
The third concert focuses on works that have been turned into music, or musical time, from other arts media: poetry, prose poetry, and sculpture; and, in one case, it is music about time itself. The latter is a song cycle by Lukas Foss on written work by Auden, Houseman, Nietzsche and Kafka, called, appropriately enough, Time Cycle. It’s scored for soprano, clarinet, cello, piano, and various percussion instruments. William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano is inspired by and illustrative of three sculptures by Depression-era artists. And the Loeffler, Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano, follows the narrative of two dark poems by an acolyte of Baudelaire.
BMint: This doesn’t sound like a series in which you can close your eyes and let the music drift over you.
MT: Perhaps not, especially since there will be so many visuals, film, paintings, sculpture, and poetry, all projected on screen above the performers. And we will also be performing the Crumb Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 with the light show he specified!
BMint: This all sounds like a rather expensive undertaking. Is MIT somehow on board with this? You mentioned your MIT faculty colleagues and the NEA? What about this did they find compelling?
MT: This project is sponsored and funded on many levels: first by the NEA, which gave us one of the largest grants of this cycle. That support was matched by the Boston Chamber Music Society Foundation (a separate private trust), an additional grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Humanities, the Council for the Arts at MIT, and strong material, personal, and in-kind support from the MIT Music and Theater Arts Faculty and staff. Like our faculty and BCMS Board, the NEA was looking for a different way of reaching the public. We made a comprehensive proposal that is virtually identical to what is being presented, and how.
BMint: Do you think you’ll be able to fill Kresge? Shouldn’t this have been planned for a more intimate setting?
MT: You can’t really say that we play most of our concerts in intimate settings. As for filling Kresge, we are making every effort. The grants allow us to have free admission to all the forums and free admission for all students to the concerts; that’s students from every school, regardless. You know the NEA has mandated that we have some way of introducing each of the concerts to the public, say, through forums.
BMint: BCMS has never done that before. How did you select the panelists? When will they participate?
MT: The panelists, as it turns out, are friends and honored colleagues whose work in various areas of music, poetry, sculpture, composition, theater and scholarship has dealt with issues of time in their own studies. Two of the panelists, Libby Larsen and Peter Child, are active composers whose works we will hear. Among others, Physicist Robert Jaffe has written two wonderfully accessible articles on time in the universe for Nature magazine. Sculptor Paul Matisse creates public sculpture that creates musical sounds and rhythms. Music Historian Lewis Lockwood will report on Beethoven’s discovery and use of the metronome.
They will be presenting, discussing and engaging with each other and the audience from 4 pm to 5:30 pm on each of the three dates. The forums will be followed by a gourmet boxed dinner that may be purchased in advance through our BCMS website. We reserved a room with tables in the Student Center across the way from Kresge, where conversations may continue among the audience and the panelists.
BMint: What about BYOB?
MT: Let me get back to you on that. Of course, there is also time for people to go to a restaurant if they want to.
BMint: This is all sounding a bit heady and rather ‘intellectual.’ Will there be a test?
Funny you should ask. In the days and week preceding each concert my colleagues and I are running a subject at MIT, 21M.542, called “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Musical Time” that will be taught by a number of different interesting people from around the Institute starting Wednesday, January 6th and running thereafter Mondays through Thursdays. Fridays will be open rehearsals with BCMS musicians working on the program. All of this is free and open to the public, even though MIT students who wish may register and receive subject credit. So, if you ever wondered what it was like to take a class at MIT, or to see BCMS musicians in open rehearsal, Independent Activities Period at MIT should have the feel of an Open House, or even a ‘happening’ where you can drop in or out and take it or leave it, as you like.
BMint: OK so, it’s clear you will have your hands full over the next few weeks. Where can we go to get further information?
MT: I would go to either to the MIT School of Humanities site for general concert information here, and to the stellar site for class and open rehearsal information that will be updated as it is formulated here, or the BCMS Website and click on Winter Festival here.
BMint: Thanks for spending time with us. We wish you all the best with this!
MT: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed speaking with you.