Berkshire Chamber Players make a welcome bow as Mozart meets Mahicans at Stockbridge Library

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STOCKBRIDGE — So, in 1772, when the 16-year-old Mozart was composing his Divertimento, K. 136, in Salzburg, what was the news in Stockbridge?

The town was 35 years old and Mahican Indians were still living there. There were two public schools, one in the Curtisville section and another along what is now Route 7. These nuggets of historical lore introduced the Berkshire Chamber Players in their debut Friday night in the Stockbridge Library, which is presenting them in a new concert series.

The commentary was delivered by Barbara Allen, curator of the library's Museum and Archives. A string quartet made up of young women - three of them recent alumnae of the Tanglewood Music Center - then played the young composer's spirited little divertimento. They followed it with Ives' Quartet No. 1 ("From the Salvation Army") and Beethoven's Opus 59, No. 3 ("Rasumovsky"). Each in turn was preceded by the news from Stockbridge in its year.

Among the top stories:

In 1902, when the Yalie Ives was finishing his six-year labor over his first quartet, Stockbridge had a population of 2,000, was in the midst of the Gilded Age and had a street railway running beside the Housatonic. In 1806, the year of the "Rasumovsky," the population was only 1,300 but the town enjoyed the first post office in Berkshire County.

From an ensemble that had gotten together for its first rehearsal only the day before the concert, the maiden effort was a good showing. The performances generally had the well-crafted but not quite finished quality to be expected from a new ensemble.

The Beethoven quartet, with its supersonic finale, would have seemed the hardest to bring off, but it came off as the most fully realized in performance, especially in the rolling rhythm of its middle-movement andante. In the Ives, whose title lovingly but ironically reflects the work's frequent quotations of old hymn tunes, the irony - the outright clowning - was more suggested than said with a smile. (The skilled players were violinists Natalie Kress and Robyn Quinett, violist Charlotte Malin and cellist Alison Rowe. All but Rowe are TMC grads.)

The library's airy main reading room proved a hospitable space for chamber music. The acoustics are live, the ambiance intimate. In addition to Allen's quick tour through local history, John Perkel, the series' organizer, gave brief introductions to the pieces themselves.          

For the 60 or so listeners, the combination of talk and music appeared engaging. A Beethoven lover could wonder, though: Isn't it anti-climactic to follow a poised performance of a Beethoven masterpiece with chatty Q-and-A banter between the audience and players?          

Three or four performances a year by varying groups are planned in the series. Bring them on.

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