That medieval-looking stone church in Chappaqua? The modern rotunda nestled among the trees in Rye? How about that yellow Gothic-revival mansion in Hastings that overlooks the Hudson, or the Norman-style granite church keeping watch over Bronxville? On any given day, someone might pass by any of these structures without imagining that they moonlight as world-class chamber music venues. But the truth is, they do.
Considering the acoustically excellent venues in Westchester County, the cohort of county residents who are accomplished musicians, and the enthusiasm of local audiences, any number of chamber music offerings come out of the woodworks – even in the least suspecting places.
For thirty-two years, Ars Antiqua has been in residence at a historic church in Chappaqua, St. Mary the Virgin. The music group has a very specific specialty: it is the only Westchester chamber music presenter dedicated to baroque music that is played on period instruments. On what makes the concerts seem like family gatherings, founder and viola da gamba master Mark Kramer cites the intimacy of the church’s space and patrons who have been attending for years. He explains: “There is an immediate connection between the audience and the musicians. People are so attentive you can hear a pin drop.” Ars Antiqua uses a core group of musicians, supplemented for each concert, to develop its programming. The wine and cheese receptions that follow the performances also create a closeness between musicians and listeners.
Temple Emanu-el is a modern rotunda in Rye, and home to the Westchester Chamber Music Society (WCMS). Shelley Lotter, president of the society, says: “We are committed to diversity in music and in the ensembles themselves.” String quartets, perhaps the most iconic of chamber music ensembles, are often on the WCMS calendar, but brass ensembles, wind ensembles and other configurations also figure prominently in their programming. Here too, intimacy and acoustics are key. “Some people sit no more than six feet from the musicians,” adds Lotter.
The Cropsey Home and Studio, where Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey lived and worked, operates most days as a museum. But it also hosts an annual concert organized by RiverArts. Doug Coe, producer of the RiverArts chamber music series, likens chamber music to “eavesdropping on a conversation.” He explains: “The musicians are talking to each other and we get to listen in.” The series, which also has performances at First Baptist in Tarrytown and South Church in Dobbs Ferry, is dedicated to showcasing contemporary works and commissioning new works.
Westchester County’s community music schools are also a driving force in this dynamic chamber music scene. Concordia Conservatory in Bronxville presents its Hoch Chamber Music Series at the Reformed Church of Bronxville. Executive Director Kathleen Suss expands the borders of chamber music by bringing in jazz and cabaret, “because they are chamber music, too.” Suss jokes that chamber music at Concordia got a big boost when Lawrence Dutton, violist for the famed Emerson Quartet, became a parent at the Conservatory. “It was like having a Major League Baseball player coach our town team.”
In practically every corner of the county, one may find chamber music hiding in plain sight. Hoff-Barthelson School of Music and Music Conservatory of Westchester offer live concerts by its chamber faculty. Sarah Lawrence College hosts chamber orchestra concerts by the Westchester Chamber Soloists. Meanwhile, Downtown Music at Grace in White Plains presents a chamber music concert nearly every Wednesday afternoon. Friends of Music Concerts continues its season with spring concerts at Sleepy Hollow Middle High School. Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts offers an eclectic series of chamber music events in its historic Music Room. The Pleasantville Presbyterian Church hosts concerts by the Pleasantville Chamber Music Society.
A school, library or house of worship may be just the ticket to the best chamber music concert in the area.