An arts organization can survive only if it adapts to changing times and changing audiences. The Rockport-based Bay Chamber Concerts has done just that. It has navigated successfully a transition from a long-standing bastion of world-class chamber and orchestral classical music on the midcoast to being much more than that — though still retaining its original commitment to the music.
Fifty years ago this summer, brothers Thomas and Andrew Wolf, then in their teens, organized the first-ever concert of the Rockport-based Bay Chamber Concerts. Each season since, programming has continued unabated, and has only grown in size and renown. Five decades of music-making will be celebrated with a 50th anniversary concert, featuring six favorite Bay Chamber musicians, at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the Rockport Opera House.
“It’s always been, at heart, about the concert portion of the organization,” said Thomas Wolf, artistic director of Bay Chamber, who took the position after Andrew Wolf died in 1985. “The international-level quality of both the artists and performances and that emphasis on excellence has not changed at all. In some ways, it’s remarkable that a little town like Rockport can bring in musicians of that caliber. But that’s part of a tradition that goes back a lot longer than 50 years.”
The tradition goes back to the late Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, the elite Philadelphia conservatory that has produced some of the finest musicians and composers of the past 100 years, from Leonard Bernstein to contemporary violinist Hilary Hahn. Bok chose Rockport as the home of the institute’s summer colony. Though the colony was discontinued in 1945, the Wolf brothers, longtime family friends of Bok’s, founded Bay Chamber Concerts in 1960 as a way to continue her work in Maine. The first concert was held in 1961.
For more than five decades, Bay Chamber has brought world-renowned classical musicians to Maine, both in Rockport and, since 1970, several times a summer in Machias. The group renovated the Rockport Opera House in 1973, which is now its permanent home, and in 1974 began offering winter concerts. In the 1990s and 2000s, the organization introduced jazz, world music and dance programs into its lineup, and in 2006 it merged with the Odeon Youth Orchestra to offer a full-time youth music program.
In the past year alone, the organization has moved into a spacious new home, located on the top floor of the recently renovated Shepard Building in Rockport Village. In spring 2010, Bay Chamber opened its new, year-round community music school, housed in the new location, offering private lessons along with chamber and orchestra programs for youths and adults.
“The emphasis on education also extends back well past the original founding of Bay Chamber,” said Wolf. “It’s now more directed to kids from Maine, as opposed to kids coming from away. Our link with the Curtis Institute remains strong as well. Every year faculty and students from Curtis come to give master classes. We’re very proud of that.”
The new music school boasts a bird’s-eye view of scenic Rockport Harbor, and every day of the week, students from across the state arrive to learn strings, piano, guitar and woodwinds. Monica Kelly, Bay Chamber’s executive director, has overseen the opening of the school.
“The reality of our society is that, despite the best efforts of educators, music education is disappearing from our schools,” said Kelly. “It’s also a fact that a huge number of people who come to concerts and stay involved in classical music played an instrument as a child. It’s a symbiotic relationship — we’re building new musicians, and we’re also building a future audience.”
To that end, Bay Chamber also has partnered with other Rockport-area organizations to bring different programming into the mix.
“It’s no longer possible to simply be a concert organization. You have to go beyond that,” said Wolf. “You have to connect to people in the community. You have to make a commitment to creating a musical community.”
The new location for Bay Chamber is a start. They share the building with Maine Media Workshops, the Institute for Global Ethics, an interior decorating studio, and James Beard Award-nominated restaurant Shepherd’s Pie, meaning that every day, musicians share space with intellectuals, designers, photographers, foodies and other creatively minded individuals.
Bay Chamber has begun offering programming in new locations, including the Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Kelly also is working on a project that will bring Bay Chamber performances to area schools and assisted living facilities — perhaps even into the Maine State Prison in Warren.
“It’s something we can do to bring more music into the community, and to supplement what’s already there,” said Kelly. “Diversification is really the key. We’re in a better place now to do that than ever.”
The concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Rockport Opera House will feature six favorite artists from Bay Chamber Concerts’ history, culminating in a performance of Brahms’ piano quintet. Performers include violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi, who played in the first season, and Joseph Silverstein, former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony; violist and Curtis Institute of Music Director Roberto Diaz; Vermeer Quartet cellist Marc Johnson; and pianists Wu Han (co-director of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society) and prize-winner Anastasia Antonacos. Tickets are $25-$45, $8 for under 18.
The 2011 summer season kicks off on July 1 and runs through Sept. 1, and features 20 different performances at the Rockport Opera House, The Strand Theatre and the Farnsworth Wyeth Center, both in Rockland. They range from the opening night, featuring Shmuel Ashkenasi and pianist Menahem Pressler, to the Young Stars of Maine concert on July 8, featuring winners of Bay Chamber’s annual prize program. On July 20, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will perform the original score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” during a screening of the film, and Aug. 10-18, the world-renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet will give an array of performances. The season ends Aug. 31-Sept. 1, with two First Chair All-Stars concerts, featuring first-chair musicians from some of the nation’s top orchestras.
A full listing of all Bay Chamber events and an online box office may be found at baychamberconcerts.org.