Berkshire Bach Society marks 25 years with a blast

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Two trumpets will sound in a Vivaldi concerto. A narrator will tell the story of two Corelli concertos composed for Christmas Eve. A Bach violin concerto and two of his "Brandenburg" concertos will usher revelers out to New Year's Eve dinners and parties.

The faithful, in other words, will fill the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center at 6 p.m. Thursday for the Berkshire Bach Society's annual "Bach at New Year's" blowout. The celebration is double, also marking the 25th anniversary of the society's concerts honoring its favorite son.

"We are a business organization that plays music," says chairman Adrian van Zon, who has been associated with the organization all 25 years. "And we are independent. We can have anybody play that we think is viable, and we close the year without a deficit, and we have a little endowment. And there we go."

The point is, faced with growing competition for audiences from an array of Berkshire arts organizations, the society has survived by adapting but sticking to its founding mission of performing Bach and other 17th- and 18-century composers with the best available musicians. A small but dedicated following of music lovers has also been crucial, van Zon says.

Thursday's program, like the previous 22 on New Year's Eve, will be performed by the Berkshire Bach Ensemble under harpsichordist-director Kenneth Cooper. Among the soloists are violinist Eugene Drucker, of the Emerson String Quartet, and retired baritone Benjamin Luxon, who will be the narrator.

Violinist-conductor Joseph Silverstein, who died last month, was to have returned as a participant. Instead, the concert is dedicated to his memory. The program will be repeated on New Year's Day at the Troy (N.Y.) Savings Bank Music Hall, and on Saturday in Northampton at the Academy of Music.

Patterned on similar organizations found in Europe, the Berkshire Bach Society grew out of a series of Bach lectures given in Great Barrington by Simon Wainrib, a retired New York businessman. Wainrib, who died in 2013, then began bringing well-known New York musicians to the Berkshires to perform.

Pay was nominal and left to chance. Instead the players were promised a weekend of Berkshire hospitality with food and drink. "So at the end of the season," van Zon recalls, "I had to write the check."

For about 15 years, the society also presented the Berkshire Bach Singers, made up of local singers, under such well-known conductors as Penna Rose and James Bagwell. In time, however, it became clear to the conductors and board that the available singers weren't up to the repertoire.

The pattern established by Wainrib for instrumental concerts remains in place. There are fall and spring concerts, plus New Year's Eve. Professional musicians continue to perform for less than their normal fee. There is no longer a need, van Zon says, for him to write a check.

Vocally, the society offers a "Messiah" sing-in in November and a choral concert by guest performers in late spring. An organ recital early in the year shows that side of Bach.

The big difference from 25 years ago, van Zon and executive director Paula Hatch explained in a joint interview, is the competition for audiences from the proliferation of cultural offerings in the Berkshires.

Van Zon and Hatch outlined the challenge:

Because much of the potential audience is made up of weekenders from the New York area, Saturday night is prime time for cultural events, especially in the heavily booked Mahaiwe. The Mahaiwe's Saturday afternoon opera telecasts make a Saturday night concert even more problematic. Meanwhile, other presenters, such as Bard and Williams colleges, put on concerts with little or no admission charge — a luxury Berkshire Bach can't afford.

Take 2013 and 2014. In early autumn, the society presented the top-tier St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble from New York in a Mahaiwe concert each year. Because of conflicts, attendance was disappointing — about 220 tickets sold for each. The loss per concert, van Zon said, ran as high as $8,000.

This year the fall concert, with noted flutist Eugenia Zukerman and harpsichordist Anthony Newman among the performers, was shifted to a barn on von Zon's South Egremont property. On an afternoon that went up against a Wagner telecast, 90 attended, but because expenses were less, the society broke even. (Students and volunteers get in free.)

Van Zon likens the musical audience to a "footprint" of concentric circles. At the center is a tight circle of diehard music lovers who come out for the music, whatever it is and whoever is performing. Next comes a general audience that might or might not be attracted. At the outside are those who want to hear only celebrity artists or familiar works.

"In order to stay financially on the solid footing," van Zon concluded, Berkshire Bach must bring in the best possible music and musicians yet still have wide appeal. "Bach at New Year's" does the job.

IN CONCERT

What: "Bach at New Year's." Music by Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli

Who: Berkshire Bach Society — Berkshire Bach Ensemble with soloists. Kenneth Cooper, director and harpsichordist

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $85-$40

How: (413) 528-0100; mahaiwe.org; in person at Mahaiwe box office

Concert will be repeated: • 4 p.m. Friday, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 2nd St., Troy, N.Y.; $78-$28; (518) 273-0038; troymusichall.org •7:30 p.m. Saturday, Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton; $38-$26; (413) 584-9032; ticketfly.com


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