Shriver Hall celebrates 50th season with old and new

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Shriver Hall Concert Series will add three new works to the chamber music repertoire during 50th season.

A glance at the first season of Shriver Hall Concert Series reveals a who's-who of 20th-century classical music luminaries, including pianist Rudolf Serkin, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the Juilliard String Quartet and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Fifty seasons later, the series held on the campus of John Hopkins University still impresses.

To launch Shriver's golden anniversary, pianist Yefim Bronfman gave a powerhouse recital last month.

"It is one of the major series to play on in the United States," Bronfman says. "It always feels a little bit like playing in Carnegie Hall. And they find a way of treating artists like family. It's very nice."

Among the artists still to come this season are another keyboard great, Nelson Freire, along with cellist Misha Maisky, soprano Nicole Cabelle and the period instrument ensemble Europa Galante.

"We're celebrating 50 years, which is good opportunity to look back," says Catherine Cochran, who recently started as executive director of the series after a tenure at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York's major cultural organizations. "But we're looking forward just as much."

That looking forward includes an initiative dubbed "Born in Baltimore." Three composers, two based in Baltimore and the third with family ties to the city, have been commissioned or co-commissioned by the Shriver Hall Concert Series to write works for the 2015-2016 season.

"This is a great direction for [Shriver], a natural extension of what we do," Cochran says. "Having new music in the season is wonderful and vital. It's pushing the art form forward."

The first of the pieces receives its East Coast premiere on Oct. 25: Piano Trio No. 2 ("Temple Visions"), by James Lee III, an associate professor at Morgan State University. It will be performed by the Montrose Trio — pianist Jon Kimura Parker and two members of the former, celebrated Tokyo String Quartet, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith.

Lee's new work draws inspiration from the last text of the New Testament.

"I was fascinated with allusions to a temple in the Book of Revelation and angles coming out of it with messages," says the composer, who has also written a piece for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's centennial season.

"It's kind of a psychological work, about the individual struggling with him or herself," Lee says. "The fourth movement suggests the resolve of a person to move forward and make decisions they hope will have a positive impact on their lives."

In November, the top-drawer Takacs Quartet will give the world premiere of "Strong Language" by young, New York-based composer Timo Andres.

"I grew up with the their recordings," he says. "What strikes me about [their playing] is an intensely single-minded concept of gesture; the music is practically leaping off the stage in almost physical form."

The composer, whose grandmother and other relatives live in Baltimore ("The Andres family will be out in force at Shriver for the premiere," he says), wrote with that Takacs playing style in mind.

In the intriguingly titled "Middens" movement, "piles of notes come up from the bottom and decayed layers gradually pile up underneath," Andres says. "The music is composted and weathered with extended techniques for the strings that create hazy sounds."

The third of the Shriver commissions, Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Jonathan Leshnoff, will be premiered in February by stellar violinist Gil Shaham and a Brooklyn-based orchestral collective called the Knights.

Knowing that Shaham and the Knights would play the work "meant that I had two home runs at the start," says Leshnoff, a Towson University faculty member whose Symphony No. 2 will be premiered next month by the Atlanta Symphony.

"Lately, my music has taken a turn and [is] really looking inward, at the inner spirituality of things, and Gil has this remarkable ability to [phrase] a line form the depths of himself," Leshnoff says.

The title of the first movement is the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Hey."

"It's about the inner essence coming out," Leshnoff says.

In addition to the three premieres, the 50th anniversary season at Shriver Hall will be packed, as usual, with lots of music from the past. The venue itself is likely to packed, too, for many of the concerts.

Last season, attendance averaged 85.5 percent of capacity in the 1,100-seat theater. The series currently has 651 subscribers and an annual budget of around $650,000.

"It's healthy and strong," says board chair Geoffrey Greif, the fourth person to hold that post in the organization's five decades. "I stand on the shoulders of giants, and follow in the footsteps of [previous board chair] Jephta Drachman, who had a lot to do with making the series as strong as it is."

The board recently expanded to include two "junior board" members. These positions are open to local college-level students with an interest in music administration.

"It is an educational opportunity for them, but also a way for us to have a set of new ears and new voices that we can, in turn, learn from," Greif says.

The longevity of the Shriver organization is a testament to its founder, biochemist, pharmacologist and cancer researcher Dr. Ernest Bueding, who joined the JHU faculty after stints in Cleveland and New Orleans. He successfully launched chamber music series in those cities; he quickly decided Baltimore should have one, too.

"It was almost entirely paid for by ticket sales in the first years, which was probably unique in Baltimore," says Donald Brown, a member of the inaugural board of directors and has been a supporter ever since.

"The highlights of my concert-going life have been in Shriver Hall," says the 84-year-old Brown. "And the series is still very high quality."

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If you go

The 50th anniversary season of Shriver Hall Concert Series continues with the Montrose Trio at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $21 to $42. Call 410-516-7164, or go to shriverconcerts.org.

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