Looking for a place to play: New chamber music series begins in South Hadley

  • Violinist Amanda Stenroos, co-artistic director of the Norwottuck Chamber Concerts, has also helped organize the UMass Amherst Bach Festival. Photo by Lesley Hogg

  • Organist Ernest May, left, and trumpet player Brooke Holmes are among some 25 area classical musicians who are part of the new concert series at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in South Hadley. Photo courtesy Amanda Stenroos

  • Baritone Cailin Marcel Manson will perform in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 1 in the new music series. Photo courtesy Amanda Stenroos

  • In addition to performing in them, pianist Kristen Flanagan has also organized a number of concerts in the new series.

  • Pianist Hugh Keelan, a native of Great Britain, will perform Jan. 19 in a concert of spiritual and sacred songs sung by Callin Marcel Manson. PhotoS courtesy Amanda Stenroos 

  • Viola player Lesley Hogg is one of some 25 classical musicians part of a new concerts series at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in South Hadley.  Photo by and courtesy of Amanda Stenroos

Staff Writer
Saturday, October 26, 2019

It’s a common issue for musicians: finding places where they can play, at least on a fairly regular basis.

And that’s true whether your instrument of choice is a guitar or drum kit — or a violin or a cello.

Violinist Amanda Stenroos, who earned a master’s in music from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015, has found some different gigs here and there since then, including at a biennial J.S. Bach music festival at UMass. (She also played once with a performer at the Yidstock Music Festival at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.)

But like a number of other classical musicians in the Valley with ties to the Five Colleges, she’s been looking for other opportunities to play — including something that could take place over an extended period.

Now Stenroos has joined forces with some of those other players to create a new concert series at South Hadley’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, the Norwottuck Chamber Concerts, which runs from fall through spring (additional events may be added to the schedule). Featuring small ensembles as well as some larger ones, the concert series will also cover a range of music, from the work of Handel and Mozart to African-American spirituals to a new chamber piece based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” that incorporates elements of folk, blues and jazz.

The first concert in the series was staged earlier this month, and the next in the series, on Nov. 9, will feature lieder — pieces for voice and piano — by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, as well as Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C Minor.

“It has been so much fun to put this series together,” Stenroos, the series’ general manager and co-artistic director, said during a recent interview at the Gazette. “There are so many talented musicians in the Valley, and finding a new venue for them and developing a new [music] program for them — it just reminds me of what a great place we live in.”

Stenroos, who also teaches violin at the Northampton Community Music Center, handles administrative work for a number of other music groups and events as well. But as part of a small string ensemble of her own, she’s struggled with the same issue other classical musicians here face: “Where are we going to play that’s not going to charge us an arm and a leg?”

That’s where All Saints’ Episcopal Church has stepped in. Ernest May, professor emeritus of organ and musicology at UMass, is the organist at the church, and he has an extensive background as a music director and organist in other settings. As Stenroos explained, he and the Rev. Tanya Wallace of All Saints’ began discussing the idea of hosting a music series there after May began working at the church in 2018.

As May saw it, a music series at the church would not only give area classical musicians an additional place to play, it would give listeners a more intimate venue for hearing that music, outside the domain of the more formal concert halls at the local colleges.

And Wallace, in a statement, said All Saints’ Church boasts “stunning acoustics” and has long been “a community that values music and hospitality…. our building has for 22 years been known for its intimate setting … and welcoming feel,” making it a good setting for new music.

Stenroos says approximately 25 to 30 musicians (including herself) are expected to be part of the Norwottuck concert series, though the number could change, as additional concerts are being considered. The number of performers on stage also varies, from small ensembles of about four players to perhaps 25-30 (the latter would include a small orchestra and choir that would perform a Bach cantata, a concert still in the planning stages).

Though many of the performers have links to the Five Colleges, especially UMass, others are drawn from different musical settings in the Valley. For instance, baritone Colin Mann is director of choirs at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, and trumpet player Brooks Holmes is band director of South Hadley’s Michael E. Smith Middle School and a member of the New England Brass Quartet.

Within the Norwottuck Chamber Concerts is an additional series of performances, called “Cultivate,” that’s been organized by pianist Kristen Flanagan, currently a graduate student at UMass and also an arts administrator and teacher. November’s performance is part of Cultivate, as is a February concert of the new music, by Longmeadow native and composer Anthony Ferreira, inspired by “The Great Gatsby.” Finally, a Cultivate concert in May will include arias from a number of Mozart operas.

In December, meantime, former UMass Choral Director Wayne Abercrombie will conduct a “singalong” version of Handel’s famous “Messiah,” featuring soloists Olivia Heinrich, Natalie Lewis, Kyle Ransom and Cailin Marcel Manson, with accompaniment from a chamber orchestra. Audience members will be invited to join the choruses of the Christmas portion of Handel’s masterwork, in a benefit for area homeless people.

For Stenroos, the Norwottuck series is in a sense a continuation of the work she’s been part of in helping produce the Bach Festival at UMass, which began in 2015 and had its third round earlier this year. The festival’s origins can be traced to the day Stenroos came to one of her UMass violin lessons while wearing a T-shirt from her undergraduate days at The Conservatory of Music at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio; the shirt was from a Bach festival the school had hosted since 1933, and Stenroos’ teacher, Liz Chang, became intrigued with the idea of starting one at UMass as well.

Now here we are today,” said Stenroos. She noted that the networking and planning she has been doing for the last four years in the area’s classical music scene got its start when she was drawn in to help get the UMass Bach Festival, which involves dozens of participants and additional scholarly symposiums, off the ground.

“I love spreadsheets!” she said with a laugh. “I’ve enjoyed planning [the Norwottuck Chamber Concerts] almost as much as playing in them.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the Norwottuck Chamber Concerts, which take place on Saturdays and Sundays, visit allsaintsallwelcome.org/season-schedule. Tickets for some events will be available at the door; donations can be made for other concerts, and reservations for shows are also encouraged and can be made online.