Chamber Music Society highlights stellar instrumentalists this summer

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Effervescent as ever after 47 summers of bringing top-notch performances and artists to the Island, pianist Delores Stevens could barely contain her delight about this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society (MVCMS) Summer Concert Festival.

“Everyone who’s coming this summer, they’re all virtuoso players,” said Ms. Stevens, who is artistic director of the MVCMS, in a phone conversation from her Chilmark home last week. She said all are accomplished and well-regarded artists who perform in the U.S. and around the world.

The venerable but always fresh chamber music festival opened this week with a concert exemplifying the quality, creativity, and variety that characterize its performances. Five star-studded programs are packed into the five-week series, played Mondays at Edgartown’s Old Whaling Church and Tuesdays at the Chilmark Community Center.

This week’s “French Hornucopia” featured Allysa Park, violin, and Timothy Loo, cello, with horn player Paul Stevens in works by Sinigaglia, Martinu, and pieces by Bright Sheng with an evocative Chinese flavor. Brahms’s Horn Trio, Op. 40, topped off the evening.

”Everyone wants to hear that at last once in their life,” Ms. Stevens declared. Ms. Stevens, a distinguished pianist, performed in this concert, as she will in three others.

“We’ve been doing varied concerts for so long it’s become our trademark,” said Ms. Stevens, a stalwart advocate for young, upcoming musicians and newly minted compositions. “Every year I try to bring music that’s older and familiar, and new music, so people have the opportunity to experience a broad spectrum of chamber music. I’m continuing that tradition.”

Ms. Stevens collaborates with guest artists on program choices to make sure they are consistent with these objectives. “We’ll have a little Mozart, a little Schumann, but we will have other pieces too, that will be intriguing to everyone.”

“This year we’re having a Cuban pianist — that’s very exciting!” Ms. Stevens announced with pleasure. Cuban pianist and composer Aldo Lopez-Gavilan is featured on August 7 and 8 in the Harlem Quartet’s program, with his own composition Ms. Stevens called “the music of Cuba,” predicting it will appeal to a wide audience.

Another first is “A Set for Clarinet” by Donald Martino, on July 24 and 25. Clarinetist Martino was a 1974 Pulitzer prizewinning composer whose music has rarely been played here.

Ms. Stevens admitted she was barely able to pick individual compositions or instrumentalists to highlight, due to her high regard for them all. “He’s my favorite!” she enthused about one artist, but quickly added that she could not really choose just one favorite among the musical luminaries.

Many of the musicians are returnees, having played in the summer or at Thanksgiving or Memorial Day concerts. Ms. Stevens has known a number of them for years, and has performed with them here and off-Island.

One familiar face is violist Scott Woolweaver, engaging with his big grin and curly hair, a darling of Island audiences. Based in Boston, Mr. Woolweaver plays with several chamber groups there and is an artist affiliate at Tufts University.

New and noteworthy is Aaron Berofsky, an exceptional violinist, head of the University of Michigan’s string music program, and Joshua Ranz, clarinet, joining Mr. Woolweaver July 24 and 25. From Mozart and Beethoven, the program ends with Gordon Jacob’s 1969 “Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano,” rich with melody and mood, an emotional roller coaster.

“Tim Fain is a big draw; he has all the characteristics of a movie star, and he’s quite a virtuoso player,” Ms. Stevens said of the striking young violinist returning July 31 and August 1 with Chilean-born cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws –- “a beautiful cello player.” The lush program includes a complex Brahms “Piano Trio, Op. 8,” and the familiar Franck “Violin Sonata in A Major” with its haunting, well-loved theme.

The Harlem Quartet, acclaimed for its “panache” by the New York Times, and a Grammy recipient for two projects with pianist Chick Corea, on August 7 and 8 will again delight Islanders with unique arrangements of jazz classics and much more.

The final concerts, August 14 and 15, spotlight the Amernet Quartet, ensemble in residence at Florida International University, Miami, and acclaimed as an exceptional string quartet. After pieces by Weber and Schumann, the group concludes the season splendidly with Dvorak’s transcendent “String Quartet in G Major,” marked by joyful balance and communication among instruments.

Ms. Stevens is well aware of the challenges these musicians face in traveling to the Island in high season. “I’m always amazed they’re actually here,” she said appreciatively. “They feel at home.”

After touching on outstanding program details, Ms. Stevens reflected on that summer 47 years ago when the seed was planted that would blossom into an Island chamber music tradition. Ms. Stevens and her friends, cellist Caroline Worthington and John Gates, clarinet, came to add their talents to Tisbury’s 300th birthday celebration.

“We decided to come the next year, and do a concert of our own,” Ms. Stevens reminisced. The rest is history, familiar to longtime fans who have followed the group’s musical journey through the years. Originally the Montagnana Trio (named for Ms. Worthington’s historic cello), then Chilmark Chamber Concerts, the group became MVCMS. Mr. Gates and later Ms. Worthington went their separate ways. Ms. Stevens persevered, as she does today. “This isn’t going to the beach, or a restaurant, or sailing,” observed Ms. Stevens. “But chamber music is something very important to the Island.”

Dynamic though she is as artistic director and pianist, Ms. Stevens does not do it all single-handedly. She lovingly credits her husband, Jim, for invaluable behind-the-scenes help: “He’s my support team!” Their son Paul, along with captivating audiences with his virtuosity on French horn and serving as associate dean of the University of Kansas School of Music, pens the exceptionally informative program notes.

Executive director Doug Finn began last October, bringing important experience in grant-writing and administration from years working with nonprofits in Western Massachusetts.

Ms. Stevens added her gratitude for the active, engaged board members who handle countless tasks, and staunch supporters across the Island community.

For more information or to purchase tickets call Doug Finn, 508-696-8055, or visit mvcms.org. Tickets are also available at the door; cash, check, or credit card.