Fine Tuning: The Chamber Music Society Of Detroit

You probably know the old joke… A tourist asks a cabdriver, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Well, the answer around these parts isn’t necessarily
“practice!” — it could just as easily be “Grab a ticket to a
performance by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit.”

Located in Farmington Hills, the Society is
nationally known for presenting a top-level slate of trios, quartets,
and quintets performing the classical and modern chamber music
repertoire — including some pieces commissioned by the CMSD. Highlights of their season include
a recital by opera superstar mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, and the Guarneri String Quartet during its final tour.

Chamber music differs from what you might hear at a
symphony performance mostly in the number of musicians — it was
constructed to be heard in private rooms by small of the wealthy, with
one player to a part. It’s been called “the music of friends” because
of the intimate setting and conversational motif of the music. And it’s
that personal quality that has allowed the society to not only survive
in these trying times for cultural institutions, but thrive, says
president Lois Beznos. “I think we have maintained our support because
of the high quality of program presentations,” she says. “We present
the highest caliber of artists from all over the world.”

Subscribers will plan their travel and other obligations so as not to miss a particular performance, she added.

Since Beznos took the helm of the Society in 1995 the budget has quadrupled to $770,000, of which roughly $550,000 is spent on presenting programming, according to the organization’s most recent IRS Form 990 filing.

Ticket prices cover less than half the cost of
putting on a concert, so the rest must be made up by corporate and
individual donations, says board chairman Chris Rossman. Despite the
pinch most arts and culture organizations are experiencing lately,
those donations have remained steady or increased in recent years, he
adds, which allows the society to continue putting on world-class
programs.

Board secretary Walt Koziol says that continuing to
serve the public means raising funds, particularly for the Society’s
endowment. Those funds are not used for regular operation costs but
invested, and income from those investments provides a more steady
revenue stream. “We will never compromise the quality of our
presentations, and we are dedicated to raising the amount of money
necessary to maintain our standards,” he says.

Beznos says the caliber of performances they bring in
along with wise financial management helps keep their funding stable.
“We run a very tight organization, and I think our funders realize
that,” she says. “I also think they realize we have a high quality
product and they want to have their name associated with it, and we
have a very loyal and supportive audience who provide very consistent
support.

In 2001, the Chamber Music Society funded the biannual Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio award to honor the trio in their 25th anniversary year and to enhance the careers of accomplished piano trios. Current winners, the ATOS Trio, will be performing in the series this fall, as will the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio itself.

Funding the award brought more prestige to the
Society, as it’s a coveted award in the classical world and is
co-presented by 19
other prestigious organizations including Carnegie Hall. They will also present two pieces co-commissioned with other chamber music organizations nationwide during this year’s series.

The Society also co-presents some of the musicians on their series with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A musician or group might perform chamber music for CMSD and then solo in a symphonic piece for the orchestra, for example.

The audience for chamber music tends to skew older,
so cultivating younger audiences is a concern. One way they do that is
through a two-week string residency with a visiting string quartet each
year. This year that is the Cypress String Quartet.
The musicians visit local schools to work with young music students and
demonstrate their instruments and technique. They also teach master
classes at Wayne State University.

Last year, they visited Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, which were partnered with Cranbrook School. The Cranbrook students worked with the younger children at Cornerstone on their instruments under the guidance of
members of the Shanghai Quartet and then both came together and
performed. “The quartet coached the string students, then they all
played together for a performance — it was a
wonderful
thing where two different kinds of socioeconomic groups came together,”
Beznos says. Some of (the Cornerstone) kids had never even seen an
instrument before.”

The residency culminates in a performance at the 740-seat Seligman Performing Arts Center
at Detroit Country Day School, which serves as the Society’s home
stage. They reach about 1400 kids — and through them, their families —
thanks to the residency program every year.

Perhaps
counter-intuitively, Beznos says the Society doesn’t specifically
target people in their post-college, pre-retirement years because
“their mission is to provide top-quality chamber music”, and sticking
to that is key to their success. “A lot of organizations around the
country will try to reach every audience and get away from their
mission and end up not knowing who they are,” she says.

They do,
however, maintain an extensive web presence, with musicians’ bios, a
great deal of information about the society, and soon, video clips from
performances, which Beznos says is an effective way  they reach younger
people.

Connecting with people who are passionate about
chamber music and trying to educate the more casual visitor in order to
spark that passion are keys to helping the Society grow, Beznos says.
For example, there is a café at every CMSD show where attendees can
discuss the program over coffee and snacks at intermission, and Steven
Rings, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Music
is slated to give pre-concert talks before various performances this
year.

“The social side of it is very important,” Beznos says. “It all contributes to the excitement people feel.”

That’s what drew in Rossman. He joined the board when
his law partner, David Page, asked him to consider it and quickly
developed a group of close-
knit friends.

“Attending a concert put on by the CMSD exposes the concertgoers not only to world class music, but also to a warm and friendly audience,” he says.

Their base is at the Seligman Performing Arts
center may hail from the suburbs (although they used to perform at Orchestra Hall before it was purchased back by the DSO), and they
definitely see themselves as representing 
Metro Detroit to the arts world at large because of their reputation and programming.

“We are known all over world for what we do,” Beznos
says. “I know companies are concerned about attracting employees to the
area and it’s very important to be able to tell employees there are
wonderful opportunities here.”


Detroit freelancer Amy Kuras has written about local schools —
among a host of other topics —for more than a decade.

Photos:

Full house at the Seligman Performing Arts center
– courtesy photo

Violinist, James Ehnes – courtesy photo

Lois Beznos, president of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit – courtesy photo

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio – courtesy photo

2004-2005 season residency quartet, Pacifica String Quartet – courtesy photo

Pianist, Christopher Taylor – courtesy photo