Classical Music in an Historic Space -July 2013
by: Katherine Berman
Since 1959, the Musical Arts Society of Nantucket has been enriching island culture, inviting world-renowned artists like the late American folk-singer Odetta, the Guarneri String Quartet, Grammy Award-winning pianist Peter Serkin and Pulitzer prize-winning American composer Ned Rorem to perform and share their stories during the summer months.
“The Musical Arts Society fills a big cultural gap in the summer,” said Howard Chadwick, secretary-treasurer of the organization for the past 30 years and a classically-trained singer.
“People can go and hear marvelous music in a gorgeous setting and walk home under the starlight. I think music is a fundamental part of our lives, and I think it’s essential. It helps us to see the best in humanity and hopefully transforms us into better people.”
The Musical Arts Society was the brainchild of the late Jane Wallach, who was aunt to the late Joseph “Mac” Dixon, former head of the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket.
In 1959, TWN was two years old and in need of funding. Wallach’s idea was to begin a classical-concert series to raise capital for the fledgling community theater. Flo Rand and RuthAnn Flanagan helped Wallach organize the society, with Christel Mitchell providing capital to found the organization.
Mitchell was the widow of Leeds Mitchell, a descendant of Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell, head of the Chicago Stock Exchange and a musician and composer in his own right.
“When the Mitchells went to buy a piano and they couldn’t decide which one to get, they bought two, and they were in their living room in Chicago,” Chadwick said. “They moved to Nantucket when they retired, and both pianos came with them.”
Mitchell donated one of those pianos to the Musical Arts Society in 1959, and it has been the “solid rock” of the concert series ever since, Chadwick said.
“Our first year we were kind of locked into the Unitarian Church as a performance center. We were there until they did a major renovation back in the early 1980s. After that they said, ‘We don’t want the piano in here,’ so we had to find a home for it,” Chadwick said. “With insurance, it wasn’t feasible to pay to have the piano moved every year. It needed a permanent home, and that’s when we went to the Congregational Church. We’ve been there ever since.”
The Musical Arts Society’s concert series involves seven weeks of programing in July and August, with visiting talent staying with a host family, participating in a “Meet the Artist” gathering on Monday and performing on Tuesday. With Nantucket’s precarious weather and transportation, the Monday-night event also ensures that the out-of-town visitors will be on the island by Tuesday.
“It is an opportunity to interact with the artist,” Chadwick said. “If we have repeating artists, they can say what they’ve been doing over the winter and can demonstrate their instruments, perhaps play some difficult passages and sort of instruct people about what to listen for and how it all falls together.”
The artists’ Monday arrival also offers them the opportunity to relax and take in the beauty of the island.
“This is part of our bargaining because we cannot pay what they do in New York, Philadelphia or any of those places,” Chadwick said. “What we can give them is a wonderful visit and the chance to relax and get to know the host families. It’s a win-win situation because the hosts usually love to learn about these people and what they’re doing and vice-versa. It’s a very good mix.”
In the organization’s formative years, it quickly gained popularity as one of the few live entertainment options on the island besides Theatre Workshop. Chadwick noted that the lack of television options and media outlets that exist today also bolstered the society.
Around 1970, the Musical Arts Society could no longer afford to fund Theatre Workshop. “What happened was the costs of artists had increased so much, there was really no money to give TWN. In the early years, when Jane founded it, any artist’s fee was only $600. That was the total for a whole group or an individual. It became a matter of the Musical Arts Society surviving on its own. By then it had become a well-known and looked-forward-to enterprise,” Chadwick said.
In the early 1970s, current society president Eva Maria Tausig assumed her position, and, with the help of her husband Hans, corresponded with agents and artists to arrange the concert series, while considering the multitude of letters expressing requests from concert attendees.
“I call her the ears, because she goes to an awful lot of concerts in New York and talks to the agents,” Chadwick said. “Over the years, I would say that the agents feel that if someone has played on Nantucket, they think, well, they must be very good. The society has gained that reputation. It’s not just opening the door to whoever gets off the boat with a harmonica.”
The seasonal nature of Nantucket and the programming has granted the society the ability to carefully curate the artists it invites to perform.
“One of our prerequisites is that someone on our board who we know has to hear the artist in performance, because sometimes people have a wonderful reputation but they can’t play,” Chadwick said, noting that he could only recall two instances of artists failing to meet the society’s expectations.
Chadwick said that Tausig and her husband, and their desire to strive for the crème de la crème of classical performers, have been vital to the integrity of the organization.
“We’ve had some of the world’s leading living composers. At one time we had Virgil Thompson and Ned Rorem both here for the same concert. It was like we were having a convention of composers. It was very fascinating Meet the Artists,” he said.
“Several years ago, Ned Rorem performed again, and wrote a song cycle, ‘Evidence of Things Not Seen,’ and it had to do with the AIDS crisis,” Chadwick said. “Ned has a wonderful way of setting poetry. It was a fantastic program, probably artistically one of the triumphs of the musical scene on Nantucket. It was fabulous.”
Other banner concert talent the Musical Arts Society has attracted over the years include pianist Rudolf Firkušný, contemporary composer Dan Pinkham, the Beaux Arts Trio, and bass singer Eric Owens of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“During the first year, we had a famous dancer by the name of Geoffrey Holder. He pranced out onto the stage in just a G-string. Now mind you, this is 1959, and there were two spinster sisters sitting in the front row and one said to the other, ‘I hardly know where to look,’ and her sister said, ‘Concentrate on his hands’,” Chadwick recalled, amused.
Pianist and island summer resident John Buttrick has been a society board member for about 20 years. Among his professional accolades, which include acting as the one-time head of the MIT piano department and a concert tour of Europe, he has performed in four Musical Arts Society concerts.
“The society is a very nice group that has bonded together,” Buttrick said. “It’s a lovely way to get together, get organized, and create something really nice for people.”
Buttrick noted, however, the challenge the society faces in the declining interest in classical music among younger generations today.
“There are a lot of people who come to the concerts, but there could be even more,” Buttrick said. “That is constantly the battle, in a world not prone to classical music, to help people learn that there is a resource here that is valuable. Usually it is the people who are of older ages who come to the concerts. How do we keep the public coming in of a younger age? That’s certainly one of the problems.”
Yet Chadwick has been encouraged by the intellect and ability he has observed in younger generations. He noted that a performer in this summer’s series, Russian-American concert violinist Yevgeny Kutik, is 28.
“I find it very interesting how young people can be so tuned in to what’s going on in the world. A lot of kids aren’t that way, they’re just the ‘grab a new beer and jump in the water type,’ but there are young people who are interested in music, and they know what they’re talking about,” he said.
The support of the community and the Congregational Church remains vital, Chadwick said. “We used to have major fundraisers, but there are so many fundraisers on-island today. Everything is a benefit. So, we really rely on people who just seem to believe in us.
“We are open to all comers. We have very wonderful people in our circle who are very supportive, not only financially, but in coming to the concerts. They rely on it.”