A 40-Year-Old Society Takes Stock

Marcus Thompson (file photo)

Wednesday September 18Th at Sanders Theater BCMS begins its 40Th season with what its fans like, great chamber music: Brahms’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, and Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 in the company of Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; Adrian Morejon, bassoon; Jason Snider, French horn; Yura Lee, violin; Marcus Thompson, viola; Clancy Newman, cello; Thomas Van Dyck, double bass. Tickets HERE.

Alongside its nine member musicians*, this season BCMS brings 16 familiar and exciting guests to 3 concert stages and adds nine works to its repertoire, including the premiere of an anniversary commission by Scott Wheeler. I enjoyed a very pleasant talk with Artistic Director Marcus Thompson about how the ensemble began, responses to recent challenges, the upcoming season, and beyond.

FLE: Over nearly 40 years the Boston Chamber Music Society has maintained the appearance of being an exclusive club the word ‘Society’ implies. And maybe for the roster of distinguished Member Musicians, it is something of a club which admits listeners to its fold. Long before so many other groups, series and venues got started, this Society has had quite an impact on how and where chamber music is presented around town. Even though you weren’t a member in its first season, at some point ‘you made the cut,’ ‘paid the fee,’ got to be a member, and, for the last 12 years you’ve served as Artistic Director. What is BCMS’s origin story?

MT: Thanks for keeping your eyes and ears on us all this time. BCMS began as a bunch of close friends and distinguished players about town, who were recruited to the faculty of Boston Conservatory and together presented a three-concert series in its first season at the First Church in Boston as the Boston Conservatory Chamber Players. I was already on the MIT faculty and recruited as a guest player for our first two seasons as a result of having worked with some of the original members in groups in New York, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and here, Boston Music Viva.

At some point these talented musicians wanted to do more and play for a wider audience but found themselves overlooked by established series because of youth or not being part of a fixed traveling ensemble or symphony orchestra. The idea, of incorporating a self-presenting ensemble series drawn from a small cohort into an independent tax-exempt organization with its own Board, was born. From the start it had the support of then Boston Conservatory President William Seymour, who actually served on our Board for the first few years and engaged BCMS as ensemble-in-residence. BCMS included multiple strings, pianists, and winds, and was recognized for the depth of individual expression and collaboration throughout every kind of ensemble. Each individual having ‘something to say’ was and remains a core value.

‘Society’ for this group was actually a clever response to perceived exclusion from the marketplace by deliberate inclusion of players and chamber works into the repertoire and in front of the paying public that would otherwise be heard almost exclusively in insider spaces. I think of BCMS as one of the first entrepreneurial musicianship ventures in Boston; ie, not waiting around for the world to discover you or fitting you into the market for which a conservatory education was supposed to prepare you. That may be BCMS’s biggest impact on the local scene.

Leadership of an independent group of solo players must be a challenge. How is being Artistic Director different from being one of the members?

As a player, my primary relationships are with the other players in rehearsals, concerts and social time. Our interactions improve my performance even as we work on our performance. Being Artistic Director adds two other layers of relationships, as an employee of the Board, and as a colleague with the Managing Director that allows me to be present and participate in most conversations about BCMS. So, I must communicate in different directions and in different ways to ensure that we all remain on the same page.

I don’t see an overall theme for the season or for any of the programs. You have been known to have themes for some of your programs, groups of programs or seasons. So, how do you go about programming a BCMS season?

Our programming is ultimately about bringing together as many people as possible for the experiences we offer. Sometimes we use themes that may help tell a story or convey the shape of an idea; but our abstract, mostly wordless medium (except for art songs) allows us to convey meaning more by what you feel than by what you think. To get to the point of agreement about what we play once we have possible dates from venues, I start by asking our Member Musicians for a series of responses: When are you available; what are you willing to play; what do you like to play, and with whom; what are you playing elsewhere that our audience needs to hear. From there, I go see the Managing Director about our financial resources; and from there, the two of us go to the Board to enlist their support for a vision we derive from all the input. For this season, as we are allowed to go back for full-length performances, we also program more pieces for larger ensembles—a few sextets, the Beethoven Septet, and even a Mozart octet for winds! Yes, it is like multi-dimensional chess, but always seems to yield satisfying results.

What is the nature of the BCMS commitment to the Member Musicians and other players?

In comparison to other major institutions, we are small and able to be nimble. Our players are contracted by the concert. That tells you something about the financial commitment, not the emotional one. During our past season and a half of uncertainty we have seen and heard the unthinkable about performing arts organizations in all sizes: the need to go dark, cut the budget, lay off employees and musicians, or not pay for contracted work. When civil authority mandated the cancellation of the final three concerts of our 2019-2020 season, I learned in a Board meeting, before it was my turn to speak, that our Board had already agreed to fully compensate contracted musicians, recording engineer, and stage manager, for the cancellations. How many organizations do that?

Since then, like every other organization in the business of presenting to the public, we have had to adapt to Covid and its aftermath. Two seasons ago it meant paying our musicians full concert fees to videotape our performances without an audience in the WGBH Fraser studio, and studios on the West Coast and overseas when our Members could not travel to Boston, and offering the results as video on demand. Last season, when we were able to return to live concerts, it meant spreading our concerts among halls available to us, taking us out of Sanders Theater most of the time and back to Jordan Hall, and a little less video on demand. When those two large halls were not available we went to the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center where we welcomed a limited live audience and delighted video on demand audiences with the glorious cathedral acoustics.

In the coming season we will present ourselves in Sanders Theater, Jordan Hall, and First Church in Cambridge based on availability. These are familiar spaces to us, and our audience over many years, so our season may have the feeling of taking a victory lap.

What has endured in BCMS and what has changed in the repertoire? In the Society’s focus and direction? Where do you see things headed on the way to ’50.’

Well, we are still highly committed to presenting the classics and chestnuts of the mixed chamber music repertoire as well as rarities. We are still committed to having Member Musicians at our core and friends and colleagues as guests when we can. In the last decade we have been committed to supporting the creation of new music for our medium through the BCMS Commissioning Club. To date we have received works from George Tsontakis, Pierre Jalbert, Harold Meltzer, Daniel Godfrey, David Rakowski, Joan Tower, Michi Wiancko, and Lowell Liebermann. This season in our October concert at Jordan Hall we will premiere a new sextet by Boston composer Scott Wheeler. Also, this season we are starting a recording project from live performances to have all our commissioned works available on discs within the next few years—one of the reasons that we are to reprise Jalbert’s 2015 Street Antiphons and Rakowski’s 2017 Entre nous in Winter 2023.

Our intention is to foster creation of new work in our time even as we play the best of the past. So far, this seems to be working well. Most of our commissions have been re-introduced by other groups and well received by audiences around the country and overseas. We have also partnered with the Entrepreneurial Musicianship offering at the New England Conservatory and hosted four young musicians so far to play with us and learn in our office how to start and maintain their own ensembles. We have introduced a Visiting Artists program that has supported having our musicians available for Master Classes in schools and colleges during their time in Boston. In that way some of our musicians who come from abroad have the experience of a residency during some of their visits. This is an expression of our commitment to students and teachers of greater Boston. And, of course, we will still offer discounted students to attend our concerts, and keep in mind our goal of greater accessibility.

The board has always expressed its desire to have us around for more than one generation. On the way to fifty and decades to come, we will be seeking to renew our Board and leadership with the intention of being here to serve our public and musicians.

And finally, BCMS has just sustained the recent loss of my close friend Stephen Friedlaender who served on your Board and as its President, even as he did the same at Harvard Musical Association and NEC over many years. You knew him in all three organizations and through his connection to MIT as the spouse of the Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences where you have been teaching since the 1970’s.

The greatest of all of Steve’s considerable gifts to us was his presence. In his presence I never heard or felt the tick of a clock. He was passionate about getting music into the lives of everyone he knew, and we are better for having had his ear, mind, values, and guidance.

*Violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Yura Lee, violist Dimitri Murrath, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, bassist Thomas Van Dyck, oboist Peggy Pearson, clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, pianist Max Levinson, and violist and Artistic Director Marcus Thomspson. Founded in 1982 by cellists Ronald Thomas and Bruce Coppock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button