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Garmany Chamber Music Series Torch Passed to Longtime Hartt School Faculty Member

Mar 31, 2016

The series is an important part of Hartford's cultural life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about chamber music.

That’s mostly because a couple of weeks ago I celebrated my final concert as the curator of the chamber music concert series I started seven years ago -- the Richard P. Garmany Series at The Hartt School.

I say “celebrated” although the moment was, to say the least, bittersweet.

The decision to step aside was entirely mine, but still it was tough letting go of something that has been so much a part of my life since the fall of 2009, when we presented out first concert.

I should say right away that the series will be continuing. Crucially, the good folks at the Garmany Fund are maintaining their generous support of the series, which is the engine that makes it all possible.

Everybody in this community is indebted to David Polk, advisor to the Garmany Fund, and to the committed people at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (yes, that especially means you, Maggie Willard) for their farsighted support of this important addition to the city’s -- and region’s -- cultural life. And for supporting many other worthy causes as well.

And equally happily, the series will now be curated by my longtime Hartt colleague and friend, Larry Alan Smith. Larry is a veteran faculty member and former dean of the Hartt School. He’s also a distinguished composer, conductor and pianist, with an international reputation.  

The Emerson Quartet, which has performed at the Garmany Chamber Music Series.
Credit Emerson Quartet

He’s absolutely the perfect person to take over the series, and I’m thrilled that he readily agreed when I asked him accept the torch. He’ll be announcing his plans for next season within a couple of weeks or so.

But before it all becomes memory, I wanted to offer two lessons that running this series has taught me.

The first is simply that chamber music -- maybe it’s more accurate these days to simply call it small-ensemble music -- is encouragingly healthy and vibrant. A lot of us spend time fretting about classical music in general these days, but really, if orchestras and opera companies were doing as well as the small ensemble scene is doing, we’d all have a lot less to fret about.

Waves of stunningly talented young players are being drawn into the small ensemble world. They are smart, personable, astute about the wider culture as well as the mercantile world. They know their way around social media and the Internet in general.

Best of all, the business model for many of these ensembles seems to actually work. Their expenses and production costs are low, and they can make a go of it playing in halls that hold a few hundred people or even fewer. Even in this day of increasing challenge for live events, such halls can be realistically filled and the artists can walk away with a decent fee for their night’s work.

Musically, the small ensemble world is pointing us to a new path, or series of paths. From commissioning of new pieces by young and emerging composers, playing transcriptions of anything and everything, including rock songs and other music from the non-classical realm, putting together programs that might feature ten or 12 shortish works rather than two or three long ones, experimenting with venues, concert length, technology, amplification, lighting, talking from the stage (when there even is a stage), mixing with audience members at post-concert receptions -- all of these and more are now in play. And audiences, increasingly including younger members, are doing the one thing crucial to the equation: showing up.

The Dover Quartet, which performed at the Hartt School as part of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series.
Credit Courtesy/Dover Quartet
The series has tried to balance new, innovative music with more traditional configurations.

And the second lesson?  Briefly it’s this: although nearly everyone has some kind of relationship to music, that relationship nowadays tends to be highly personal, and frequently unpredictable.

What I mean is, you can’t just hang out your shingle and say “Concert Tonight.” With respect to the Garmany series, we tried -- with what we took to be exquisitely careful calculation -- to balance the traditional with the new. That is, to play a healthy and lively portion of standard repertoire, performed by string quartets and other traditional configurations, while also presenting a goodly amount of innovative, boundary-pushing and just plain new music, often performed by ensembles that were themselves unconventional.

In the former category we presented, for instance, the Emerson, Miro, Calder, Dover and Brentano Quartets, as well as artists from the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, among many others. In the latter category we brought in eighth blackbird, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Sybarite5, ICE, jazz/roots violinist Regina Carter, etc.

To my mind, this is the greatest joy and pleasure that live music can bestow -- the chance to sometimes be comforted and affirmed with pieces that we know and love, while sometimes being stimulated and challenged by music that we don’t know.

As I would often point out to my gentle tradition-minded subscribers, even your most cherished and beloved pieces, at some moment in your past, had to be encountered for the first time.

Mostly, the formula worked. Nothing was more satisfying than to have a ticket buyer or subscriber, after dutifully hanging in there for an evening of contemporary or nonstandard music, come up to me and say, “You know, I didn’t have any idea what to expect and I’m not sure I understood everything, but I’m glad to have had the chance to hear it.”

But I would be less than honest if I failed to acknowledge that it didn’t always work this way. Truth to tell, we had some subscribers who complained that the unorthodox stuff irritated them, a few of them even saying to me that “this isn’t chamber music.”

I tended to take this personally, the sure mark of a rookie impresario. In a few cases, I poignantly visited unhappy subscribers at their home in an effort to talk through their concerns.

I would point out that, as a school, we were obliged to present to our students, as well as our audiences, the fullest possible range of what is happening musically in our time. New music, of course, is as essential to that range as old music. I would also invoke the figure of Moshe Paranov, the redoubtable founder of the Hartt School, who was a fierce champion of new music, even though he himself had had a very traditional musical upbringing and was deeply rooted in the standard repertoire.

I was sure I was being charmingly persuasive.

And yet the sorry truth is I lost a number of these folks. I regret that profoundly.

But as I now step away from the series, having produced 28 widely varied concerts, I realize that the goal of trying to please everyone is, in fact, not such a worthy goal, not to mention an unattainable one. Instead, we were concerned with a slightly different goal: to present what is interesting, what is authentic, what is artistically ambitious. In short, to the extent that the word can be defined in the arts, what is good.

To that goal, with the help of our Garmany Fund friends, and our loyal, cheering, up-for-anything audiences, I think we stayed true. And that makes this bittersweet moment decidedly sweeter.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.