‘This  is something we had to do’: Valley Classical Concerts returns after two-year absence

  • The Quartetto di Cremona comes from northern Italy to begin the 2022 Valley Classical Concert series on Feb. 5. CONTRIBUTED/NIKOLAJ LUND

  • The Verona Quartet, whose members come from four countries, will play the second concert of the VCC series Feb. 20. CONTRIBUTED/KAUPO KIKKAS

  • The Lysander Trio, which plays the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity March 20, has a local connection: Pianist Liza Stepanov taught music at Smith College from 2013-2015. Photo by Jiyang Chen

  • Pianist Richard Goode will play Beethoven, Mozart and more April 10 at Smith College as part of the VCC series. Photo by Steven J. Riskind

  • The Apple Hill String Quartet, joined by pianist Judith Gordon, will round out the VVC series May 1. Photo from Apple Hill String Quartet website

Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2022

When he stepped down from WFCR-FM (now part of New England Public Media) in late 2013 after almost 25 years as the station’s classical music director, John Montanari said he’d continue work in a similar vein that he’d also been doing awhile: serving as the artistic director of a concert series that brought classical music to the Valley every spring and fall.

Valley Classical Concerts (VCC), once known as the Music in Deerfield series, continued strong through the fall of 2019 — and then, like the rest of the music world, it hit a wall called COVID-19 in early 2020.

Now the series is poised to make a comeback, with five concerts scheduled beginning Feb. 5 and running into early May. All will feature small ensembles, playing a range of music — by classical stalwarts such as Beethoven, 20th-century giants such as Arnold Schoenberg, as well as contemporary composers — at three different venues in Northampton.

Opening the series, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, will be Quartetto di Cremona, an acclaimed string quartet from Italy that has played all over the world and won praise for its extensive repertoire and remarkable cohesion. “Through years of playing together, the Quartetto di Cremona has developed the feel of a single voice, and remarkably so,” one reviewer wrote in 2018. “But individual parts shine too.”

Planning for these shows took place months ago, Montanari said during a recent phone interview, well before anyone had heard of the omicron variant. Now, even as cases of this new COVID strain have surged, he says he and other organizers of the Valley Classical Concert series are committed to seeing the shows take place.

“This is something we had to do,” Montanari said. “Our mission is to present concerts, and it’s time we got back to doing that. We’ve been too long without it.”

Obviously there’s some level of risk involved, both for audience members and the groups themselves, he noted. Should one member of the Quartetto di Cremona contract COVID, it would likely force them to cancel their tour, which besides the VCC performance includes three dates in February in Connecticut and New York state.

But if these groups are willing to take the risk to perform, Montanari hopes Valley classical musical enthusiasts will also take the chance to see them: “We’ll let our audience members determine their own level of risk.”

William Harbison, chair of the board of directors for the music series, echoed that thought.

“VCC is the ONLY musical organization in the Pioneer Valley that is left to produce chamber music concerts from internationally recognized chamber groups (many of whom are prize winners),” he said in an email. “We owe it to our audience of many years, who have been reaching out to us, to take the plunge and proceed.”

And now, from Italy

Quartettodi di Cremona, for instance, which has been together for over 20 years, has made a study of the classical canon, playing the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and other famed European composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their repertoire also includes work by many late 19th- and 20th-century composers, and by contemporary ones as well.

For their Feb. 5 performance at St. John’s Church, which begins at 7 p.m., they’ll play music by Joseph-Maurice Ravel, the French composer of Swiss-Basque descent born in 1875; by Schoenberg, the hugely influential Austrian-American composer of the first half of the 20th century; and by Osvaldo Golijov, a native of Argentina who today lives in Boston and teaches music at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

“We’ve always tried to put together shows that offer a range of music — the traditional big names in the canon, certainly, but we also like to introduce newer music, newer composers, to our audience,” Montanari said.

Quartettodi di Cremona, as well as two other artists in the VCC series — pianist Richard Goode, who plays April 10, and the Apple Hill String Quartet, appearing May 1 — have performed in the series before. On Feb. 20 and March 20, two new groups — The Verona Quartet and The Lysander Trio — will become part of the series, and both will appear at the Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence, at Florence Congregational Church.

Montanari says VCC has staged it concerts for years at Sweeney Hall at Smith College but this season has used other venues as well, largely because of changing COVID policies at Smith.

The members of The Verona Quartet, which comes to the Bombyx Center Feb. 20 at 3 p.m., hail from four countries — the U.S., Great Britain, Singapore and Canada — and they’ve won praise for their energy and chops. The New York Times calls them an “outstanding ensemble of young musicians … cohesive yet full of temperament.”

“We’ve heard great things about them,” Montanari said of the group, which will play music by Schubert, Bartók and Beethoven.

The Lysander Trio, which plays the Bombyx Center March 20 at 3 p.m., is composed of pianist Liza Stepanova, a native of Belarus, and violinist Itmar Zorman and cellist Michael Katz, both natives of Israel. The group has a local connection: Stepanova taught at Smith College from 2013 to 2015 as a visiting artist in piano.

The ensemble, which released a new album, “Mirrors,” last year, will play music by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and James Lee III, a versatile African American composer who teaches music at Morgan State University in Maryland.

The VCC series rounds out with Goode’s solo piano renditions of music by Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy at Sweeney Hall at Smith — “His shows are an event,” Montanari said with a laugh — and the Apple Hill String Quartet, whose performance at the Bombyx Center will include music by a young Japanese-American composer, Sato Matsui, and Amy Beach — the first American woman to compose and publish a symphony. The Boston Symphony Orchestra debuted her Gaelic Symphony in 1896.

The Apple Hill Quartet, which is based in New Hampshire, will be joined by pianist Judith Gordon.

After seeing two years worth of concerts wiped out by the pandemic, Montanari and Harbison are determined it won’t happen again, though they stress that full safety protocols will be in place for all concerts: Proof of COVID vaccination will be required for attendance, and masks (preferably the N-95 type) must be worn at all times.

Tickets and additional details about the music series are available at valleyclassicalconcerts.org.

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