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Boston Society Sings Good Song


Claude Debussy by Marcel Baschet

For its 35th season, Boston Chamber Music Society plans to expand beyond its traditional digs at Sander Theater to new realms such as the Arlington Street Church on Saturday mornings, the broadcast studio of WGBH Radio at the Boston Public Library, and the Somerville High School in support of building its string program.

The season’s theme, ‘the good song’ taken from the year’s closer, Fauré’s La bonne chanson, explores in eight programs at Sanders Theater, close or unusual connections in ideas, place and time. Pairings of the music of Schumann and Brahms, mature works of prodigies, Mozart and Mendelssohn; between Schoenberg and the young Brahms. Lord Byron and Paul Verlaine, will decry the sway of tyrants and sing of love, respectively.

The 100th anniversary of Debussy death will hover, as they play the string quartet and each of his three sonatas on the first four programs of the new year.

As a warmup tribute for the beginning of its 35th season, which begins with Mozart, Mendelssohn and Fauré at Sander’s Theater on September 24th [details HERE], BMInt spoke with BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thomson.

FLE: The organization’s name ends with the word “Society.” What does that mean today? Does it imply a democratic or cooperative endeavor or something High Society like a club that would want you or me as a member? Boston Cecilia gave the word “society” the boot a decade ago.

MT: I wasn’t among those who chose the name, but I think it’s a really good one. It says up front where we are, what kind of music we play, and that we share what we like with others on a regular basis. Becoming a member of a society that enjoys what we do, and wants to sustain it, is a personal choice–with the purchase of a ticket, the offering of help in a contribution of talent or treasure, and just showing up. People come for their own reasons. I think most in our society are people who love this medium of close interaction, who like hearing the players as accomplished individuals in a small group with a unified voice and direction, or who are often chamber players themselves.. A number of folks turn to chamber music with the sense that less can also be more. Frankly, I think our people are just hardcore concertgoers with big appetites and broad tastes. I say that because I see many of them at every other kind of concert I go to!

BCMS is a presenting organization as well as a fixed group of players. Is that part of what differentiates it?

We say we are a self-presenting organization made up of a growing cohort of members from whom ensembles are created among ourselves and with guests. What differentiates us is that all of us can play lead or supporting parts when the piece uses more than one of the same instruments or when the music requires. This allows a piece to be played and heard with a different combination of members and/or guests as a completely new experience. Within any single program we have the option of presenting two or three instrumental combinations with our players in differing roles.

As a format this way of creating programs with different kinds of ensembles was more common in summer festivals than during the subscription year when chamber series presented whole programs by quartets or trios. BCMS is a product of the shift in the 1970’s bringing this kind of music making to the regular concert season calendar. I was fortunate to be just out of conservatory at the time and a willing participant in the increased opportunities afforded to me as young viola player.

How does one become a member of the playing society?

Same as always; by accretion, like planets! BCMS began as a collection of individuals who played with each other in various combinations and settings here in Boston and in many places around the country and the world. It’s proven to be a nice way to meet people and to learn your craft. All our players appear on national and international stages with each other and many more their music colleagues, and are eager to let me know with whom they would like to play what here in Boston. We try to make it happen given our budget, varied schedules, and limited time frame between getting hall dates and announcing programs. Over time repeat guests who have won the hearts of our member musicians and audience and can be available to us frequently and consistently may become members.

What value do you add in your role as artistic director?

To me the position at BCMS is more a focal point and filter for an entire organization than just a musical ensemble leader. BCMS is seen and heard most in a series of wonderful concerts. These are the product of much interaction and planning among the players, the Board and its committees, staff, advisors, and a separate supporting Foundation. The artistic director’s job as I see it is to listen broadly–to the musicians, our supporters, to know the field and the repertoire –and to respond by making proposals consistent with our budget and stated mission: ‘To provide the public with exceptional performances of chamber music repertoire from the Baroque era to the present day while fostering understanding and appreciation of the art form, making it more accessible to all.’

You know, there are many kinds of leadership. That most often asked question of ‘who leads’ in the ensemble is answered truthfully by pointing to the kind of mutual support and agreement that are the goal of every rehearsal. You especially need to have that in a group of leaders like ours. Since I am just a violist within the ensemble, and not the leading voice in most works we play, I know that most of the big interpretive decisions that inform what we do in performance will be made collectively, as we should.

Where I add value to all of this is as the local presence that tries to keep the focus of all our stakeholders on our collective desire to adapt and grow so that we can be around for many more years. It helps that I still live and work here and can have daily interactions with our musicians, staff and supporters even as so many of our players, who once lived here, become nationally and internationally prominent. 

At 35-years-old, the organization must be doing some reflecting on its anniversary season and what does or does not happen afterwards. Is 40 a good time to let the youngsters take over?

BCMS has been thinking about what happens next throughout its history. We were led for our first 25 years by our founding artistic director, as are many ensembles in the neighborhood. Governance issues typically come up at points of transition such as when seeking independence from an institution to become its own non-profit organization with a Board of Directors, growing beyond the size where its possible for everyone to be present at all times, and deciding to move to new leadership beyond our founders.

Over 34 seasons BCMS has done all three, and survived, thanks to our loyal supporters. Whether or not to continue and how is a choice that can and must be made periodically. Fortunately for us, the BCMS Board, Foundation, musicians and audience decided that they wanted BCMS to be more than a one-generation wonder. The price of organizational longevity is ‘renewal’–of the Board, musicians, supporters, leadership, and to continually appeal to a wider audience. An influx of youth, energy, and vision of any age is always welcome throughout BCMS!

What surprises have you for readers beyond the fact that you have a new pulpit at Arlington Street Church?

Who was it that famously said the “best surprise is no surprise?” It shouldn’t surprise that among our guests are many Boston ‘favorites’ and a number of debuts including Paula Robison, Kim Kashkashian, and Rane Moore who are, or have been, leaders of other local chamber series. 

Our new pulpit, as you call it, at Arlington Street Church (ASC) is one of two of our more visible efforts to broaden our appeal in the coming season. At historic ASC we are playing three one-hour programs around the noon hour, starting at 11:30, on three Saturdays prior to our September, November, and March Sanders concerts. If they catch on among the Saturday strollers, shoppers, and neighborhood residents, we can do more next season. We call the series ‘Morning Light’ as a way to entice people with a shorter program and a peek at the gorgeous, newly restored, Tiffany windows during the concert.

Some of your readers may be surprised to learn that the BCMS organization has a long history and growing commitment to community engagement. Starting around twenty years ago– with regular visits to the Boston Arts Academy, residencies and open rehearsals at MIT and the New School of Music, master classes by our Member Musicians at the Walnut Hill School, NEC, Boston Conservatory, Project STEP, Community Music Center, our annual all-day chamber music workshop, and welcoming students from the Boston Public Schools to open rehearsals–we have sought a variety of ways to build interest in chamber music through up close and personal contacts.

This fall we will add to these a new partnership with Somerville High School, through its String Chamber Orchestra, by sponsoring weekly sectional coaching by double bassist Jury Kobayashi-Baxter and members of the Denovo Quartet, all five promising young local musicians. The program will have its most visible kickoff with a free concert by BCMS musicians at the High School in October for music students from all the Somerville public schools!

Is the variety formula of mixing up players and repertoire (with one new piece sandwiched in the middle) still working?

Yes, but it is not the only organizing principle that informs our programming. Deploying players in different roles and repertoire throughout a concert is a hallmark of BCMS. We try to mix the familiar, the rare, and the new to broaden our appeal. We are often inspired by anniversaries or topics as a way of adding historic perspective and dimension. 2018 is one hundred years since the creation of Walton’s Piano Quartet and the passing of Claude Debussy. We will mark the beginning of Walton’s career and the end of Debussy’s by playing the Walton in February and including a late chamber work by Debussy on each program from January through April. In May we close the season with Gabriel Faure’s 1918 arrangement of his song cycle La bonne chanson, with piano and string quintet accompaniment, intended for Debussy’s second wife, Emma Bardac. In November 2017 our program could be thought of as a series of ‘begats.’ We will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, that sets the epic poem by Lord Byron for reciter and piano quintet, to coincide with the first anniversary of the last national election. That concert will start with Schumann Piano Trio #2 as a follow up to the first trio last season, and conclude with Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet, which you will recall Schoenberg loved so much he arranged it for orchestra!

You must know after 34 years as a player and 9 as a director who your audience is, and what it wants.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to keep asking, or to hear directly from them from time to time. Despite the presence of many newer and excellent outlets for chamber music about town since we came along, it is clear we still have a place. People want to hear favorites, old and new, in inspiring settings, played by accomplished, insightful, and nimble players. They want to learn some new factoid or relationship about the composer, the music, the players. They want to see the joy of people working well together–and to be transported beyond the present.

After our 30th anniversary we gathered a small club of people who wanted to hear more music created for today. The Commissioning Club premiere has been a regular feature ever since and is a direct response to those who want the excitement that must have attended a premiere by one of the old masters, and participation in creating the future!

As artistic director I have to try balance the interests and needs of the players, the audience, the responsibility to the art, and the desire to keep the organization functioning into the future.

Marcus Thompson (file photo

How have you managed to keep the brand so reliable?

Oh, good! Thanks for the compliment! Believe me, the credit goes to everyone else–my amazing musical colleagues, our staff, and supporters–who take pride in what was begun here. Over time we have worked to build mutual trust in BCMS as an entity that survives because it also serves. It is important to me to mention by name our Managing Director, Wen Huang, who is a real partner in our successes and who combines the talents of six ideal staff members!! Publicly, however, I will only give him credit for five.

Opening Night:
September 24th at 8:00
Sanders Theater

Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493
Mendelssohn: Viola Quintet in B-flat major, Op. 87
Fauré: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 45

Yura Lee & Harumi Rhodes, violins
Marcus Thompson & Dimitri Murrath, violas
Raman Ramakrishnan, cello
Max Levinson, piano

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