The Boston Chamber Music Society’s Hamel Summer Series has long been a feature at Longy’s Pickman Hall on four Saturday nights in August. Two summers ago it was moved to the Arsenal Center for the Art’s Charles Mosesian Theater on Arsenal Street in Watertown because of renovations to Pickman. This summer, a year after having returned to Pickman for a single season, BCMS has decided to give Watertown another try, this time with a program highlighting the music of Debussy and his cohort in honor of the composer’s 150th birthday in late August. The series resumes this year on August 4th. Lee Eiseman asked BCMS Director Marcus Thompson to provide some background on these recent decisions.
Eiseman: Marcus, was it my lobbying that brought you and BCMS back to Watertown?
M.T.: Thanks for asking. I really appreciate the opportunity to catch up. As you know, we consider Pickman Hall to be one of Cambridge’s jewels. It remains one of our favorite places to make music and to meet our supporters. However, the renovations that closed the hall two seasons ago created a necessity as well as an opportunity to re-think our location. We were amazed to find our audience knew how to find us by turning up in record numbers. Many people spoke about the convenient location: free parking, public transportation by bus, and a number of fine restaurant choices in and around Watertown Square and close to the theater. So, although I would like to say it was all because of you, I can truly say you were one of the first to inquire.
Good, we can take some credit for the return. But, there were other issues to consider as well. The acoustics of this theater were not really designed for music, and the center does not own its own piano. How are you planning to deal with those issues?
Right! Mosesian Theater was probably designed more for clarity of speech than for warming the sounds of instruments. Last time we were conscious of the need to really learn the space, both for our listening as players and for the audience, with whom I sat each time. I love the raked seating, direct sight lines, and the clarity. In that sense it reminds me very much of the intimacy of Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C., where the Budapest Quartet used to play. When people are in the hall it is much drier than we are used to, more like a radio broadcast studio. So, we need to have faith that we can quickly adjust and that all our nuances can be heard.
As for the piano, one of our pianists, Mihae Lee, has chosen to rent a beautiful Steinway that she says will meet our needs. I’ve learned to trust her judgment on many things, especially on choosing fine pianos.
Who will miss Longy?
Good Question! I expect I will, especially since the last few times I played in the summer have been at Pickman. But, I expect others will as well. Anyone used to a summer evening neighborhood stroll to the concerts from the Harvard Square area may wonder about the new inconvenience – especially those without a car – and those who find Watertown outside their itineraries. I’ve been reassured and heartened by the fact that lots of subscribers to the Mosesian Theater reside around Harvard Square. So, it has become a more familiar place to concert and theater goers. I also think of our supporters from outlying neighborhoods and towns who come in for a fun evening and can now find fine food, drink, music and free parking all in one complex.
This summer’s programs suggest that you are coming down on the side of unified thematic programming as opposed to selections or variety related in some other way? Is there any truth to that?
M.T. As you know, this could turn into one of those endless debates about which kind of programming is more appealing to audiences. Ideally, it’s nice to communicate in some way the reason for selecting a program. The most overt way is to strike a theme and try to stick with it. We’ve had more success with that approach in our Hamel Summer Series because all four are presented within the same month. You might think of this a return to the very popular French Feast we presented several summers back, this time around the music of Debussy. This great 150th Anniversary of Debussy’s birth on August 22nd has given us a great opportunity to play a wealth of the literature he might have known, written or inspired. There is also the opportunity to witness the sound world from which his unique imagination emerged.
The first concert (August 4) showcases works by Debussy’s teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, Guiraud and Franck (the Sonata for Violin and Piano), framing some of his piano pieces and that marvelous, seldom-heard early piano trio. The second concert (August 11) gives us a glimpse of works by a later colleague, Erik Satie, who famously replied to a critic by writing three pieces in the shape of a pear when asked the form of his music. Debussy is represented by two of his most famous compositions, Claire de lune, which I think we all played as piano students, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano with its tinge of Spanish flavoring. This concert closes with solo piano works by Fauré as appetizers to his great Piano Quartet in G minor, one of our special favorites.
Our third concert (August 18) offers a rare opportunity to hear the Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Debussy and Ravel, and their string quartets as well – all in the same evening! The impulse to compare and contrast, not to mention enjoy, could not be greater! And finally, on August 25, we add Fauré’s wonderful Sonata for Violin and Piano to the feast of the great French sonatas, Debussy’s Ibéria (for Piano Four Hands) to whet the appetite for the four-hand version of La Mer next January, and conclude with Ravel’s epic Piano Trio.
For me these are the best reasons to come to all four concerts on each of the four Saturday nights in August at 8 pm.
Thanks Marcus. BMInt plans to send reviewers.