M.V. Chamber Music Society mixes it up with Beethoven and Billy Childs

Pianist Billy Childs and cellist Maksim Velichkin. — Photo by Susan Safford

A mix of classical music and jazz informs much of this Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s 45th-anniversary summer concert series, and Monday night’s concert at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown was a wonderful mix-up of classical music, with Beethoven’s “Cello Sonata, Op. 5 No. 1” performed by the society’s artistic director and pianist Delores Stevens, accompanying virtuoso cellist Maksim Velichkin, and the freeform jazz piano work of Billy Childs, who was, in turn, accompanied by Mr. Velichkin.

The show was dedicated to Leslie J. Stark, a staunch supporter and society board member who passed away last week.

As the only artistic director the society has ever had, Ms. Stevens, a world-renowned concert pianist, brings a recognizable enthusiasm to both her choice of programs and to her playing, an enthusiasm that was easily matched by the emotionally charged work of Mr. Velichkin on cello.

Mr. Velichkin, a master of multiple instruments, is a big man who seemed to grow larger, dwarfing his instrument when he wrestled and cajoled big, forceful sounds, and alternately seemed to settle into a more moderate size when he gently caressed his instrument to bring out the fullness and the tenderness of the sonata. He carried those same magical performing qualities with him when he accompanied Mr. Childs in the second half of the program.

During the introductions, Ms. Stevens noted, as a segue to describing Mr. Childs’ work, that improvisation was an important part of Beethoven’s world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time reflected in the trompe l’oeil wall behind the performers and in the classic lines and acoustics of the 19th century Old Whaling Church.

Mr. Childs’ music was a collection of carefully crafted, inspiring pieces that incorporated the distinct improvisational antecedents of fellow jazz keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and former fellow Windham Hill recording star George Winston. While it is not uncommon for musicians to bring emotional baggage to their performances, Mr. Childs seemed to bring the emotion without the baggage.

Mr. Childs played two songs written when his teenage sons were young boys and dedicated to them, and one piece that was inspired by the short poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. Another, “Prelude in B flat major,” was inspired by Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

A piece written by French jazz legend Michel Legrand, “This Is Jazz,” a late addition not on the program, was the only piece he played he did not compose.

The improvisational sections of the performance seemed to be as much fun for the audience as the performers as Mr. Velichkin and Mr. Childs mirrored, in turn, each other’s rhythms, progressions, melodies, and emotions, using the changes as starting points for improvisational flurries that took on the character of a one-on-one basketball contest, each trying to outdo the other in friendly combat. They even seemed to vie for the Most Sensitive award, which Mr. Velichkin appeared to win when he resorted to emotional vocalizations in the style of Keith Jarrett, after each had rapped out rhythms with their hands on their instruments.

Music can be like baking bread. The ingredients are inert for all practical purposes. Instruments are inert and sit silent, as do the musicians. The bread begins to take shape only after the ingredients are combined and the yeast is added. When baked, it grows and fills the pan; the aroma fills the room and floats, perhaps forever, outside on the air. Classical pianist Delores Stevens, jazz pianist Billy Childs, and cellist Maksim Velichkin joined forces and filled the room with a delicious mix of sounds. The music was fun and inspiring, and it is no doubt still alive, at least for the audience, still floating on the cool night air outside the huge open windows of the Old Whaling Church.

The concert was repeated at the Chilmark Community Center Tuesday evening.

The series continues on August 3 and 4, when the Infinity Brass Quartet will present a program made up primarily of contemporary music, including arrangements of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”

The season will conclude with two somewhat more transitional sets of concerts, from the Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio on August 10 and 11, and a group made up of famed clarinetist Franklin Cohen, his daughter pianist Diana Cohen, and pianist Roman Rabinovich on August 17.