Classical music with a light touch
Pandemics and peak experiences aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath. But I had something resembling one in May 2021 when I attended a concert at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s stately home in Lenox, Massachusetts. The performers were Soprano Sonja Tengblad and contralto Emily Marvosh, with Joseph Turvessi on the piano.
All three were returning to the live stage after a Covid-forced hiatus of many months. They called their show a “climate cabaret” and offered an audience of no more than a couple of dozen people -- outdoors and face-masked, of course -- an early evening celebration of the natural world, as well as musical warnings about the perils of a warming planet.
This “gratitude” concert was the brainchild of cellist Yehuda Hanani, the artistic director and founder of Close Encounters with Music, a long-running eclectic Berkshires chamber music series.
As Yehuda said on that limpid May evening, introducing the performers and treating the coronavirus as a pothole to be skirted around, “I can not think of a more inviting and celebratory way to start the summer together.” Then he broke into song in passable German, identifying the piece as by Robert Schumann based on a poem by Heinrich Heine. “In the lovely month of May,” Yehuda sang, “when all the buds opened, love unfolded in my heart.”
Close Encounters with Music kicks off its 31st season, its indoor season that is, on November 6th with one of its more ambitious concerts yet: the thrice Covid-delayed world premiere of Tamar Muscal’s “One Earth”. The performers include Christylez Bacon, a rapper/beatbox artist, a tabla player, a string quartet – with Yehuda on the cello, as he typically is – and, oh, the Mount Holyoke College Chamber Singers.
If you’re anything like me (and for your own sake I pray you’re not) your kneejerk reaction to modern music is probably something like: “Sounds interesting but I’ve got to feed the cat.”
Yehuda admitted: “The question always comes up, what are we going to do about the graying of the audience?” The answer was supplied by Paul Cohen, the son of Stanley Cohen, a Close Encounters supporter and a mutual friend. “Get some rappers,” Paul suggested. “So I thought,’” Yehuda went on, “‘What if we engage a wonderful composition to include a part for a rapper?”
“One Earth” is the result.
Yehuda Hanani’s musical talent was recognized by Leonard Bernstein and violinist Isaac Stern. At nineteen they brought him to the United States from Israel where was born and grew up. “I was ready to go to the army,” Yehuda remembers. “Bernstein said, “Don’t draft him. Let this boy go and achieve his potential.’” So the teenager moved to New York and studied at Juilliard with the likes of Pablo Casals.
Yehuda’s musical skills may be eclipsed only by his understanding of his audience, and its tolerance for novelty. One 2013 show featured a conversation between the cellist and former Yankees pitcher, bestselling “Ball Four” author, and Berkshires resident Jim Bouton. The subject was the similarities between playing a classical concert and pitching a major league ball game. The November 6th show concludes, not with something challenging and atonal, but with Schubert’s splendid String Quintet in C Major.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bernstein recognized showmanship in the teenager. Close Encounters’ performances reminds me of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts that I attended as a child. I didn’t much enjoy having to wear a tie and jacket on a Saturday morning and walk down the West Side to Lincoln Center. But Bernstein had a genius for bringing classical music to life for children – Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Copland’s Billy the Kid – by sharing his visceral delight in sound and never talking down to his highly distractible audience.
I’ve only come to Close Encounters in the last several years and attended a handful of concerts. But the format goes something like this: Yehuda introduces the program with a cogent sketch of the work, including tangents that often involve the life and times, triumphs and disappointments, loves, maladies and occasional lapses into madness of the composer we’re about to hear.
In the same way that I harbor skepticism about contemporary music, I’d normally be reluctant to sit through a lecture on the subject. But Yehuda transmits a passion for his subject leavened by a comic’s sense of timing.
And something else that aligns nicely with the average, enlightened audience members that fill the seats at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington: a commitment to social justice that Yehuda shares with his wife Hannah, the vice president of Close Encounters’ board.
On the 100th anniversary of the Suffrage Movement in 2017 and women getting the right to vote, Close Encounters threw a concert featuring women composers and called “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman”. And back in the late 1990’s they joined the successful fight against a multinational’s plan to build a huge cement plant in Hudson, NY with “Revolutionary Etudes, the Music of Political Protest.”
The pandemic concert I attended was both musical and gently militant. It included teenage climate activist’s Greta Thunberg emotional 2019 address to the United Nations set to music and a sly nod to a sweating planet with Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot.”
Through next June, Close Encounters hosts six concerts at the Mahaiwe following “One Earth” on November 6th, with works by some of the composers I came to know and appreciate under the tutelage of maestro Bernstein. In the coming months you can take a metaphorical gallery stroll with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. And the 13-member Manhattan Chamber Orchestra makes its Close Encounters debut with the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Copeland’s Appalachian Spring.
The season culminates with Schubert’s joyous “Trout” Quintet. Knowing Yehuda, he’ll find some way to connect the work and trout fishing season in the Berkshires.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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