String awakening: Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music kicks off season

Jonathan Miller, a 40-year veteran of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performs with the MVCMS this Saturday, May 26. — Photo courtesy of MVCMS

To the initiated, the term chamber music may conjure up images from a costume drama with musicians providing the requisite, rather dull entertainment at an aristocrat’s get-together, while an unenthused audience suppresses yawns and offers up polite applause. Those who have attended any of the Martha’s vineyard Chamber Music Society’s (MVCMS) summer concerts know better.

The music varies from classical to jazz to experimental, the selections tend to the dramatic, and the evenings invariably end with a rousing standing ovation.

This weekend, MVCMS offers a special pre-season concert at a discounted price ($20 as opposed to $35) as part of a nationwide initiative to generate interest in chamber music, or small ensemble music. The term refers not to a style of music but to the manner in which it is presented, where only one performer takes on each part of a composition, as opposed to a whole “section” in a symphony orchestra.

The concert on Saturday, May 26, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, includes a variety of musical styles from a range of eras. MVCMS artistic director and pianist Delores Stevens has selected three piano quartets to kick off the season. For last year’s spring concert, she presented a mix of duets featuring four musicians, but this time around she says, “The variety is going to be in the music.”

“Piano Quartet in E-flat Major” by Mozart will open the program. “The Mozart is just elegant and refined,” says Ms. Stevens. “This is a perfect example of pure chamber music.” This classic three-movement piece is followed by a lively selection by early 20th-century Spanish composer Joachín Turina.

“Turina is a composer who is not only from Spain, but writes with that kind of Spanish ambience,” says Ms. Stevens. “The music is very folksy, with Spanish rhythms. It’s idiomatic, melodic, very romantic music.”

Post-intermission, the concert will conclude with a work by Richard Strauss that Ms. Stevens notes is not performed that often, owing to its difficulty.

“This piece is interesting in that it’s quite a large piece in scope. It’s almost orchestral,” she says. “It doesn’t sound much like chamber music. It imbues a huge amount of sound. It’s very beautiful, romantic.”

Appropriately, Ms. Stevens comments, “I think of the Strauss as a rebirth. We’re giving birth to a new season. It’s so uplifting. It makes you get excited about things to come.”

Ms. Stevens is in demand as a musician who performs in the off-season around her winter home in Southern California. She is recognized as a leading piano soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and abroad and has recorded for 16 record labels in many genres of music.

Sharing the stage with her is Lila Brown, viola, co-founder and artistic director of the chamber music festival, Music from Salem. After graduating from The Julliard School, Ms. Brown joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and then went on to become the principal violist of the Camerata Academia Salzburg. She served as an associate professor for music schools in Europe as well as for the Boston Conservatory.

Jonathan Miller, cello, is a 40-year veteran of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has performed as soloist with a number of symphonies, including The Boston Pops. Mr. Miller twice toured the U.S. with the New York String Sextet, and he has performed as a featured soloist at the American Cello Congresses in both 1990 and 1996.

Sharan Leventhal, violin, has toured in the U.S., Europe, and South America as a chamber musician and as a soloist with numerous organizations. She has premiered well over 100 works. Ms. Leventhal teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and Brandeis University, and she is founder and director of Play On, Inc., a nonprofit supporting chamber music programs for children.

Emergency surgery last fall prevented Ms. Stevens from performing in MVCMS’s final concert of the year. She was, however, able to deliver a message to the audience via cell phone. She has recovered completely and completed a full winter touring schedule.

This concert marks the triumphant return of Ms. Stevens, whose support of contemporary composers led to an award from the National Association of Composers for her “achievements as one of the most important artists to further the cause and influence of contemporary music,” according to the MVCMS program. With her programming for the MVCMS, she makes a concerted effort to provide a variety of musical styles and recognize emerging artists and groups.

Upcoming events

The 2012 season includes two nights with the St. Petersburg String Quartet from Russia and a one-night only performance by Imani Winds, a rising young African-American ensemble from New York. The Eclipse Quartet, an ensemble from Los Angeles dedicated to the music of 20th century and present day composers, will appear in July, while a Baroque program in August will encompass work by Johann Sebastian Bach and two of his composer sons.

One program will feature a saxophone player. “Concert sax playing is so elegant and it’s so different,” says Ms. Stevens. “It’s something a lot of people haven’t heard before.” For another concert, the MVCMS will be bringing in a harpsichordist from Boston.

This year, the society offers a bonus — a free concert in June that, along with this weekend’s concert, will bring their summer performance total up to a record 13 (most of the programs are presented twice — on Monday nights at the Old Whaling Church and on Tuesdays at the Chilmark Community Center). The free concert, featuring famed violinist Timothy Fain performing a new piece by Philip Glass, is funded by Sam Feldman, in memory of his wife, Gretchen.

“We’re trying to extend our schedule,” says David Rhoderick, who is in his third year as MVCMS board president. He hopes to introduce new audiences to the organization with the discounted and free concerts, and to boost season ticket sales with an early-bird offer that is good until May 31. The regular price for a five-concert subscription has been reduced from $155 to $140 with a further 10 percent off with the Our Island Club card.

Mr. Rhoderick notes that the society was able to double their annual scholarship award this year. On June 8 they will present a $2,000 scholarship to a high school senior.

“We’re trying to boost our educational activity,” says Mr. Rhoderick. Along with the scholarship, the organization subsidizes music lessons for children and provides loaner instruments. They will also host a lecture in August on music in education.

Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s Spring Concert, Saturday, May 26, 7:30 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. $20. For more information, visit