Cultures through a Classical Music Lens

The Worcester Chamber Music Society is Back with Music that Transcends Borders

Megan Swedberg, Contributing Writer

The Worcester Chamber Music Society (WCMS) is back in season, bringing the Worcester community together through innovative programs and stirring artistic performances. Tracy Kraus, director and co-founder of WCMS and alumni of Clark University (‘82), has been busily preparing for the season opener of the 2020-2021 WCMS concert season. Amid her preparation, she was gracious enough to provide some insight in an email about WCMS and what to expect from their 16th season.

After a year of unexpected challenges for organizations and communities all around the world in the wave of the pandemic, it is with great enthusiasm that WCMS will be able to return to in-person concerts. In addressing the impact that Covid-19 has had on WCMS, Kraus wrote:

“Every arts organization has been impacted by the pandemic and WCMS is no exception. We were forced to cancel several concerts in the spring of 2020 and quickly pivoted to virtual performances which included an ‘at-home’ series, and then a full season of live-streamed and on-demand concerts in 2020-2021. Fortunately, our audience followed us into the virtual realm and helped us keep our heads above water. For our Neighborhood Strings program [which offers free music lessons to youth in the Worcester and Main South communities], when the schools were forced to close we again, quickly pivoted to online learning. We lost a few students along the way due to a lack of internet access and/or equipment. Again, we were fortunate to receive donated space at the Main South Community Development Corporation which allowed us to see students in person and virtually last school year. This year our program is fully in-person 5 days a week.”

WCMS has given so much to the surrounding communities by offering arts education, providing affordable and enthralling concerts and fostering an inclusive experience for all. Even in the midst of the pandemic, they adjusted their setting in order to continue servicing the community with their music. It is no wonder that their audience has continued to support them through the pandemic and no doubt that many will be looking forward to the return of the in-person experience. Along with being in person, WCMS is especially excited to have access to the new Jean McDonough Arts Center (JMAC), which Kraus wrote is “a beautiful state-of-the-art theatre in downtown Worcester.”

Originally founded in 2006 by Kraus and Clark faculty member Peter Sulski, out of what Kraus wrote was “a desire to build a world-class chamber music series in Worcester,” the Worcester Chamber Music Society honors the power of music to transcend across linguistic and cultural boundaries, uniting people of all different backgrounds through a shared experience.

According to WCMS’s mission statement, which can be found on their webpage, the organization strives to “cultivate an appreciation for classical music” and “develop a community of listeners and musicians inclusive of all ages, traditions, and cultures” in order to “open a pathway to a more profound connection to and understanding of those around us.”

 The goal to build a diverse community and celebrate a variety of cultures and traditions ties into this year’s overarching concert theme “Crossing Borders,” which according to Kraus, “looks at the intersectionality of cultures through the classical music lens.” Under this theme, WCMS will be presenting 15 concerts, or seven programs, both in-person and virtual.

“For example,” Kraus wrote “our opening program ‘American Voices’, September 24 and 26, explores how the music of black American composers William Grant Still (known as the ‘Dean of African-American Composers’), Margaret Bonds, and Henry T. Burleigh influenced the music of Antonin Dvorak – specifically his ‘American’ String Quintet. This program features guest baritone (and Clark professor) Cailin Marcel Manson.

Antonín Dvořák, an esteemed composer with high regard in the Western world, journeyed to America in search of an authentic American voice. What exactly does this mean? As Kraus helped clarify, “Musically speaking, every culture has a distinct voice – one that evolves from its cultural influences. American classical music has many such influences such as folk music from native indigenous people, black spirituals, blues, and jazz.” In other words, Dvořák sought to discover how the American culture manifested in its music. Upon his exploration, one of the things Dvořák was most inspired by was the revolutionary work of Black American composers, which he found to be a staple of American music. Music journalist Sidney Madden would agree with such a conclusion, for as reported in an article from NBC News, she claimed that “Every genre that is born from America has Black roots associated with it, from rock ‘n’ roll to blues to disco. The fingerprints of Black creators are all over what makes American music so unique.” 

The intention behind “American Voices” is to recognize the contributions of Black creators through pieces such as William Grant Still’s “Folk Song Suite #1” and Margaret Bond’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” for the music we love today wouldn’t be the same without their influence. As Kraus commented, “When most people think of classical music, they think of the music of white European men such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. More recently, we’ve become familiar with white female composers such as Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Joan Tower, and Marti Epstein. We (and by “we” I mean all white people) must create equal space, and equal time for black composers, black artists, all black people. The music of black composers such as William Grant Still, George Walker, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and living composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman, Jeffrey Mumford, and David Sanford deserve to be recognized and must become as familiar to us as their white counterparts.”

Following the program “American Voices,” WCMS will present the world premiere of Matt Malsky’s chamber opera, “A Dill Pickle,” on October 10 at the JMAC. Matt Malsky is the Sweeney Professor of Music, directing both the Higgins School of Humanities and the Media, Culture & the Arts program at Clark University. Efforts to create this production were made by Malsky himself alongside other Clark faculty members Stephen DiRado, Soren Sorenson, John Freyermuth and Kevin McGerigle. As with “American Voices,” guest baritone Cailin Marcel Manson, Director of Music Performance at Clark, will perform in “A Dill Pickle.”

Then, on November 14, WCMS showcases “French Connections,” on which Kraus noted “features the music of Aaron Copland, Lili Boulanger, and Frank Bridges, all of whom were impacted by the cosmopolitan exchange of ideas at the Paris cafés in the early 20th century.” 

After “French Connections,” Kraus wrote “We travel to the east in April with ‘Looking East’ (April 22 and 24) and the music of Alexander Borodin, György Kósa, and Grażyna Bacewicz. Then in between, we have our annual free family concert – “Aponi’s Destiny – the Adventures of a Fruitfly”, March 6, in collaboration with the EcoTarium, and our very popular Baroque concert, December 9 and 10.”

“American Voices” – September 24 and 26

“Chamber Opera: A Dill Pickle” – October 10

“French Connections” – November 14

“Baroque in Winter” – December 9 and 10

Aponi’s Destiny – the Adventures of a Fruitfly” – March 6

“Looking East” – April 22 and 24

In order to catch one or more of WCMS’s inspiring performances this season and be immersed into the powerful community depicted above, go online via their website to buy tickets.