August means some of the same things wherever people live: sticky summer days, sweet corn, and back-to-school advertisements. But in Connecticut, August also means the Chestnut Hill Concerts. The chamber music programs, on consecutive Fridays from Friday, Aug. 4 through Friday, Aug. 25, at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, will include the legendary three Bs of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
On Friday, Aug. 4, an all-Bach program will feature both instrumental and vocal music, including a Bach cello suite performed by Chestnut Hill’s artistic director, Ronald Thomas. Though Bach is known for his cantatas inspired by sacred themes, soprano Hyunah Yu will sing arias from a decidedly secular work known as the Coffee Cantata. The drink that is a regular part of the morning ritual today was considered a new and exotic beverage in Bach’s time.
“It’s kind of about two people meeting in a coffee shop, humorous,” Thomas says.
In addition to a musical cup of Joe, in the all-Bach concert, musicians will use period-appropriate Baroque instruments, which are tuned a half-tone lower than modern instruments. The instruments themselves, with the exception of Thomas’s cello, are not vintage pieces but modern reproductions of instruments that would have been used in Bach’s time. Thomas plays a cello made in 1740, but it will be set up differently for the all-Bach concert.
A Coming Out
Thomas noted that for most of his long professional career, he has been known as a performer of romantic and modern compositions, but as a teenager he loved buying records of Baroque instruments.
“I’m coming out as a Baroque lover at the age of 63,” he says.
The concert Friday, Aug. 11 will include not only Beethoven, but also two of the other giants of the classical world: Mozart and Schubert. For the first time in its more than 40-year history, Chestnut Hill will present one of the most famous and beloved of chamber music pieces, Shubert’s Trout Quintet. When asked about whether musicians groan at the thought of constantly playing crowd-pleasing favorites like the Trout in different venues during the same season, Thomas demurres.
“I suppose if you played it 30 times in a row,” he says, “but it’s always beautiful music.”
For the record, Thomas is playing the Trout only twice this summer, the other time in Seattle.
On Friday, Aug. 18, the program will be entirely Brahms, with three piano trios, performed by Thomas, along with Arturo Delmoni on the violin and Mihae Lee on piano.
The final concert on Friday, Aug. 25 will be all Beethoven, but with a particular focus. All the pieces are transcriptions made by the composer himself of his own music. According to Thomas, making transcriptions was somewhat out of character for Beethoven. Thomas says Beethoven was known to be very particular about respecting the written score.
“Who knows why he did them. There are all kinds of theories; maybe he wanted to have the music played; maybe he just needed the money,” Thomas says.
Transcriptions of classical works for different instrumentation, Thomas added, are very popular today.
“If you go to YouTube, you can see all kinds of different combinations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations for four saxophones or three vibraphones,” he says.
As regular Chestnut Hill concertgoers know, Thomas gives personal introductions so audiences can appreciate the history and nuances of the music.
“I try to say something that is not in the program. I have played some of these pieces hundreds of times and I have to have thoughts about them, not just things you could look up on Wikipedia, but a personal insight,” he explains.
Thomas plays concerts throughout the country, but he says New England audiences often have an expertise advantage because there are so many opportunities to hear the music in this area.
“There’s more familiarity and so more demand to do it well,” he observed.
As for audiences in general, Thomas noted that everybody coughs more in winter, but that not all coughs sounded alike.
“The best acoustics for coughing are at Avery Fisher Hall,” he says of the Lincoln Center venue.
Wherever Thomas goes, his cello goes with him but not in baggage.
The cello flies leaning against its own airline seat with a belt around the neck of the case. Flight attendants used to object as he brought the cello, claiming there was no room on board until he explained that he had a ticket for the instrument. And the cello is just as up-to-date a flier as any other passenger. Thomas purchases both his own ticket and the cello’s on the Internet.
“I give all the same information as I do for myself, but then I put ‘cello,’” he explained.
Chestnut Hill Concerts: Fridays, Aug. 4, 11, 18, 25 at The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main Street, Old Saybrook. Tickets for the concerts are available at katharinehepburntheater.org.