When planning for Memorial Day weekend, you’ll probably remember the charcoal, fishing poles, and dinner reservations, but don’t forget the chamber music! The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s (MVCMS) annual Memorial Day concert Sunday evening at the Old Whaling Church is a lovely way to cap off a busy day enjoying the Island. Featuring the acclaimed Verona Quartet, joined by MVCMS artistic director and co-founder Delores Stevens on piano, the program spans musical periods from early classical to romantic and contemporary.
Verona Quartet members violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, Abigail Rojansky, viola, and Jonathan Dormand, cello, have been honored individually and as a group. All have prestigious credentials, have played widely in the U.S. and abroad, and share their art with upcoming artists through teaching.
Called “an outstanding ensemble of young musicians” by the New York Times, the quartet won the 2015 Concert Artists Guild Competition. The players were named “New Artists of the Month” for May 2016 by Musical America.
Adding a moving and personal note, the concert will honor Nikki Langer, a longtime fan and supporter of the chamber music group. Langer, who passed away at her Chilmark home last December at 95, was a passionate music lover and accomplished musician herself. She served on the board, lent behind-the-scenes assistance, and faithfully attended concerts with her husband, Jacob Weissman. “Nikki was so important from the beginning,” said Stevens.
Langer, a retired Hofstra University psychology professor, organized chamber music workshops for the organization, drawing musicians to the Island. She played French horn, among other instruments, one of many things that endeared her to Stevens, whose son, Paul, is a horn player too.
“She could do anything, really!” Stevens said of her accomplished, warmhearted, and creative friend.
Stevens has chosen the Adagio from Edward Elgar’s 1918 “Piano Quintet in A min., Op. 84,” to play in her memory. She will join the string musicians for this at once pensive and passionate piece that has been described as serene, wistful, soulful, and even otherworldly. “It’s very emotional and very beautiful, very rich,” explained Stevens. “She loved music so much. I think this expresses her life very well.”
The broadly varied program begins in early Classical mode with Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet in B flat Maj., Op. 50, No. 1,” one of six pieces composed in 1787 and dedicated to King Frederick William II of Prussia. The tidy, four-movement piece is a graceful and elegant concert opener.
The composition offers opportunities for cellist Jonathan Dormand to take the spotlight, an emphasis that one source suggests the composer made to acknowledge the king, a capable amateur cellist.
Lesser known is “Cypresses,” a collection of short pieces by Antonín Dvorák. Based on a set of 18 songs for voice and piano composed in 1865 when Dvorak was only 24 and said to be “mending a broken heart,” these miniature string quartets are lush as whipped cream, romantic as a Victorian bouquet. For this program, the quartet selected five of the pieces that the composer himself transformed from art songs to string quartets in 1887.
The concluding “String Quartet No. 2” by the modern Czech composer Leos Janácek, titled “Intimate Letters,” is marked by numerous shifts of tempo. It was created during a period when the composer was in the throes of a fantasy romance, writing love letters to a younger woman.
The often moody music swoops from adagio to vivace and back, inspiring one critic to guess that the volatile dynamics reflect the tumultuous passion of the composer for his unattainable beloved.
Stevens is freshly arrived in Chilmark with her husband Jim Stevens from their Los Angeles home. Although its Summer Chamber Music Festival does not launch until July 16 with five separate programs and 10 performances in five weeks, this Memorial Day concert officially marks the beginning of the society’s 48th season.
“I can’t say how amazed I am!” declared Stevens that the chamber group’s 50th anniversary is approaching.
She credited the active and dedicated board for support in keeping the program vibrant, as well as the top-notch guest artists and the enthusiastic audiences.
Stevens recalled the beginnings of the summer series when she was part of the Montagnana Trio with cellist Caroline Worthington and John Gates, clarinetist.
The trio would visit Chilmark, where Worthington’s mother, Eleanor Piacenza, had a home, to relax and rehearse before touring. One summer they were invited to play for Tisbury’s centennial observance, and realized there were no regular classical concerts on the Island: “We said, ‘Gosh, there’s no music here. We need to bring some!”
From that time the group, which eventually evolved into the MVCMS, has aimed to bring top-quality guest musicians to the Island.
“I try to get the best musicians in the world to come, so people here will have the opportunity to hear things they might not get to hear otherwise,” said Stevens.
She added that the Verona Quartet fits perfectly into that tradition, with its four exceptional musicians. “They’re all prizewinners; they’ve played all over,” said Stevens. “It’s a very high-level quartet, and everyone will be thrilled to hear them.”
“I think it’s going to be a fabulous concert,” Stevens promised. “I’m looking forward to it!”
The society will host a festive post-performance reception, inviting concertgoers to meet the artists.
M.V. Chamber Music Society, featuring the Verona Quartet, Sunday, May 27, 7 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Tickets $25 at door. For info: 508-696-8055, email@example.com.