A big award for a little series — South Mountain Concerts in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD >> Until last week's announcement, it was a well-kept secret that South Mountain Concerts would receive the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music.

But then, except to chamber music aficionados, South Mountain itself is a well-kept secret. Hidden from the world, the barnlike concert hall sits high on a heavily wooded hillside and is reached by a twisting dirt road. The series advertises little and conducts no public fund drive. The concert season is modest: five Sunday programs in September and early October, when the summer crowds are gone.

Across the country, meanwhile, cities and universities boast full seasons of concerts offering a wide range of artists in larger, often more comfortable venues.

Look at the current South Mountain season, which ends Sunday, for a clue to why little South Mountain caught lordly Lincoln Center's eye: four top-of-the-line attractions — the Setzer-Finckel-Wu Han piano trio and the Juilliard, Dover, Emerson string quartets — followed by the less-known Johannes quartet, which appears with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman Sunday.

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han are co-directors of the Lincoln Center chamber society. With violinist Philip Setzer, they have performed as a trio at South Mountain in six of the past seven years, including this year's opening program. They have seen and and heard for themselves.

"With great simplicity and purity of purpose," Finckel and Wu Han said in announcing the award, "South Mountain Concerts has always put quality first, focusing its listeners on the music for the music's sake alone. This jewel of a chamber music series should be celebrated, emulated and supported for its unassailable ethics and proven sustainability."

"Purity" is the operative word here. Like the Lincoln Center series, South Mountain embraces the classical canon with a leavening of new music within the tradition. If you look elsewhere in New York and around the country, you see mash-ups of classical, electronics, video, pop, rock, rap and other come-ons. Trendiness, and sometimes commercialism, dilutes "music for the music's sake."

Nineteen years younger than Tanglewood, South Mountain will mark its 100th anniversary in 2018. The series can afford to remain independent because of its cushion of financial support, according to executive director Lou Steigler.

The real estate was left to the organization by its founder, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the "fairy godmother of chamber music." Sally Willeke, Steigler's predecessor as director (and the widow of the founding director, cellist Willem Willeke), left her estate in trust to support the concert series. Steigler said income from her bequest, plus donations from subscribers and other concertgoers, is enough to keep the series going. All 440 seats are usually sold out, many by subscription.

The award puts South Mountain in a league with the internationally renowned Marlboro Music Festival, last year's recipient. Another previous winner is pianist Menahem Pressler, who performed for half a century at South Mountain, mostly with the now defunct Beaux Arts Trio. Charles Wadsworth, the Lincoln Center group's founder, is the only other recipient. Steigler and board president Ann Galt will receive a commemorative trophy on the stage at the society's opening concert on Oct. 18 in Alice Tully Hall in New York.

South Mountain's programming tends to be conservative; the latest composer on the 2016 schedule is Bartok. The Finckel-Wu Han trio, for example, this year played towering masterworks by Beethoven and Schubert. On Sunday, the Johannes quartet performs Mozart, Bartok and Brahms.

Commissions have brought new works to the repertoire. In the early years, Bloch, Martinu and Schoenberg were among the better-known composers receiving commissions. Four commissions in 2010 produced works by Lera Auerbach, David Del Tredici, Eric Moe and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich.

In addition, performers sometimes bring new pieces with them. Last year, for example, Lowell Liebermann's Quartet No. 5 was performed by the Emerson. But by and large, the preferences of the South Mountain audience stop somewhere around Shostakovich.

Two miles up the road in Pittsfield, poverty, crime and drugs are a problem. Meanwhile, a nasty election campaign is under way. For two hours on five Sundays in early autumn, South Mountain provides an opportunity to leave trends and problems behind and immerse yourself in some of the noblest creations of the human mind. That's worthy of celebration.


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