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Classical Matters
Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society

By John Budris

Like so many successful Vineyard enterprises, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society (MVCMS) began with a personal loan. A literal loan of a piano. Jim Norton’s vintage Steinway. That was 46 summers ago. ”Classical music wasn’t part of the Vineyard’s summer experience in any great way back then,” says Delores “Dee” Stevens, MVCMS artistic director and co-founder. “But fast forward to today, and it seems we’ve
always been here.”

The genesis of the MVCMS began in California as the Montagnana Trio, with clarinetist John Gates, cellist Caroline Worthington, and Dee Stevens, by then an already renowned concert pianist. The trio had been touring around the world for a few years when in 1971, Worthington’s mother-in-law invited the group to the Vineyard to mark Tisbury’s Tercentennial celebration with a concert at the Katherine Cornell Theater. “And it just felt right, it fit,” says Stevens.

The first concerts on the Vineyard were held outdoors, as informal musicales, and when Jim Norton hauled his Steinway to the Chilmark Community Center for the inaugural, evening indoor concert, all the elements aligned for the evolution of what would become the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s meteoric trajectory.

“The concert was free, and it was packed,” says Stevens. “And we knew we found a home.” The concerts grew in popularity and scope during the next decade, finding two Vineyard homes for the twice weekly performances at the stately Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on one night and the rather informal Chilmark Community Center the next.

In 2001, the group changed course, with Gates and Worthington moving in different performance directions, leaving Stevens to reset the MVCMS compass. And this she did in spades, beginning the tradition of inviting some of the world’s most sought after musicians and soloists to the stage beside her. How does Stevens manage to attract some of the world's finest performers to an island at a time when most are enjoying a little well-deserved vacation? “Well I like to think it’s the music and power of our personalities,” she chuckles. “But part of me thinks it’s the lobster and the beach.”

In those years at the helm Stevens has expanded the scope of the repertoire to include not only strictly classical pieces, but also jazz, a bit of Broadway and a sprinkling of Bluegrass, in addition to commissioning pieces by composers as diverse as Ned Rorem to Billy Childs. What almost 50 years ago began as a simple desire for fine music in the summer Vineyard setting has grown into a far larger mission. The MVCMS is one of the driving forces behind the Vineyard’s successful string program for some 200 young musicians. A recent grant of $29,300 will be used to add 20 new violins and violas to the current 40 for a free lending program that enables elementary strings students to borrow string instruments and graduate into larger instruments as they grow.

Funding will also support three years of an artists-in-residence program intended to provide inspiration to strings students. The commitment to students is also reflected in free admission to all concerts. In addition, the MVCMS provides scholarships to graduating Vineyarders who intend to pursue music in college and beyond. One of the scholarship’s first recipients - Boston-based tenor Jonas Budris - will share the stage with Stevens, soprano Jayne West and violist Scott Woolweaver in the August 1st & 2nd concerts.

“It doesn’t get any better than that when one of our own comes home and sings for his supper,” says Stevens, “Or in this case, maybe one of those lobsters.”

For more info visit: mvcms.org