Pandemics and peak experiences are usually not mentioned in the same breath. But I had something that sounded like one in May 2021 when I attended a concert at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s stately home in Lenox, Massachusetts. The performers were soprano Sonja Tengblad and contralto Emily Marvosh, with Joseph Turvessi on piano.
All three were returning to the stage after a months-long hiatus forced by Covid. They called their show a “climate cabaret” and treated an audience of no more than a few dozen people — outdoors and in masks, of course — to an early evening celebration of the natural world, along with musical warnings about the perils of a warming planet.
This “gratitude” concert was dreamed up by cellist Yehuda Hanani, artistic director and founder of Close Encounters with Music, a long-running eclectic chamber music series from the Berkshires.
As Yehuda said on that crystal-clear May evening, introducing the artists and treating the coronavirus like a pothole to work around, “I can’t think of a more inviting and festive way to start the summer together. “. Then he started singing in passable German, identifying the piece as Robert Schumann’s based on a poem by Heinrich Heine. “In the beautiful month of May,” sang Yehuda, “when all the buds opened, love unfolded in my heart.”
Close Encounters with Music enters its 31st season, its indoor season i.e. November 6e with one of his most ambitious gigs to date: the thrice-Covid-delayed world premiere of Tamar Muscal’s “One Earth.” Performers include Christylez Bacon, a rapper/beatbox artist, tabla player, string quartet – with Yehuda on cello, as he usually is – and, oh, the Mount Holyoke College Chamber Singers.
If you’re anything like me (and for your good, I pray you’re not), your gut reaction to modern music is probably something like, “That sounds interesting, but I gotta feed the cat. “
Yehuda admitted, “The question always comes up, what are we going to do with the graying of the audience?” The answer was provided by Paul Cohen, son of Stanley Cohen, a Close Encounters supporter and mutual friend. “Get some rappers,” Paul suggested. “So I thought,” Yehuda continued, “what if we hire a wonderful composition to include a role for a rapper?”
“One Earth” is the result.
Yehuda Hanani’s musical talent has been recognized by Leonard Bernstein and violinist Isaac Stern. At nineteen they brought him to the United States of Israel where he was born and raised. “I was ready to go to the army,” Yehuda recalls. “Bernstein said, ‘Don’t fish him out. Let that boy go and fulfill his potential. So the teenager moved to New York and studied at Juilliard with the likes of Pablo Casals.
Yehuda’s musical skills can only be eclipsed by his understanding of his audience and his tolerance for novelty. A 2013 broadcast featured a conversation between the cellist and former Yankees pitcher, best-selling author of “Ball Four,” and Berkshires resident Jim Bouton. The topic was the similarities between playing a classical concert and pitching a major league baseball game. November 6e The show ends, not with something provocative and atonal, but with Schubert’s splendid String Quintet in C major.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Bernstein recognized the teenager’s showmanship. Close Encounters performances remind me of the Leonard Bernstein Youth Concerts I attended as a child. I didn’t much like having to wear a tie and jacket on a Saturday morning and walk down the West Side to Lincoln Center. But Bernstein had a genius for bringing classical children’s music to life – Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Copland’s Billy the Kid – by sharing his visceral delight in sound and never gossiping with his very distracted audience.
I’ve only been to Close Encounters for the past few years and attended a handful of gigs. But the format goes something like this: Yehuda introduces the program with a compelling sketch of the work, including tangents that often involve life and times, triumphs and disappointments, loves, illnesses and the occasional fall in the madness of the composer we are about to listen to.
Just as I am skeptical of contemporary music, I would normally be reluctant to attend a conference on the subject. But Yehuda conveys a passion for his subject matter, accentuated by a comic’s sense of timing.
And something else that aligns well with the average and discerning audiences who occupy the seats of the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington: a commitment to social justice that Yehuda shares with his wife Hannah, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees. by Close Encounters.
Of the 100e anniversary of the Suffrage Movement in 2017 and the achievement of women’s suffrage, Close Encounters held a concert featuring female songwriters titled “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman”. And in the late 1990s, they joined the successful fight against a multinational’s plan to build a massive cement plant in Hudson, NY with “Revolutionary Etudes, the Music of Political Protest.”
The pandemic concert I attended was both musical and gently militant. It included Greta Thunberg’s moving 2019 address to the United Nations, teenage climate activist, and a sly nod to a sweaty planet with Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot.”
Until next June, Close Encounters organizes six concerts at the Mahaiwe after “One Earth” on November 6e, featuring works by some of the composers I have come to know and appreciate under the tutelage of Maestro Bernstein. In the coming months, you can take a metaphorical walk through the gallery with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And the 13-member Manhattan Chamber Orchestra makes its Close Encounters debut with Copeland’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Appalachian Spring.
The season culminates with Schubert’s cheerful “Trout” quintet. Knowing Yehuda, he will find a way to connect work and the trout fishing season in the Berkshires.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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