South Mountain Concerts hits high note with 'extraordinary service' award


PITTSFIELD — Dubbed a "jewel of a chamber music series," 98-year-old South Mountain Concerts is being crowned by the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music.

The award will be presented during the opening concert of Chamber Music Society's 47th season on Oct. 18 at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York.

South Mountain executive director Lou Steigler and board of directors President Ann Galt are planning to be in New York for the presentation.

According to Chamber Music Society officials, there is no set schedule for the awards nor is it an honor for which recipients can apply or be nominated. Previous winners are pianist Menahem Pressler (2013), Chamber Music Society founder Charles Wadsworth (2014) and Music From Marlboro in Vermont (2015).

"With great simplicity and purity of purpose, South Mountain Concerts has always put quality first, focusing its listeners on the music for music's sake," said Chamber Music Society artistic directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han — who performed with violinist Philip Setzer in South Mountain's 2016 season-opening concert on Sept. 4 — in a news release.

"This jewel of a chamber music series should be celebrated, emulated and supported for its unassailable ethics and proven sustainability," the release said. "CMS tips its hat to South Mountain Concerts with gratitude for the inspiration it provides us and the rest of the classical music world."

Steigler, who has been South Mountain's executive director since 1981, said in an email interview that he was "amazed and surprised that we had been chosen because we are a very small chamber music festival, presenting only five concerts in a series each year. There surely are scores of chamber music presenters across the country. It is an extremely high honor to have been chosen."

Steigler said he was notified about the honor in late June. The award was initiated by Han and Finckel to "identify, recognize and publicly honor those individuals and institutions who have made significant contributions to the art of chamber music," he said.

South Mountain was founded in 1918 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge — an amateur composer and pianist who gave commissions to composers of promise and renown — who had purchased the property on Pittsfield-Lenox Road (Routes 7 and 20), approximately two miles south of Park Square, in 1916 as a gift for her son.

Two years later, she built a new summer home and studio for herself on the property, and the concert hall, which was designed specifically for chamber music. The hall now seats 440 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.

The list of composers who have had works commissioned by South Mountain is long and rich — Ernest Bloch, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Bohuslav Martinu, Arnold Schoenberg, among them.

The lengthy roster of artists who have performed at South Mountain includes Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Menahem Pressler, Leontyne Price, Rudolf Serkin, Peter Serkin, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio; and the Juilliard, Cleveland, Guarneri, Emerson, Borromeo, Muir, Saint Lawrence, Saint Petersburg, Takács, Tokyo and Vermeer string quartets.

Steigler is only the third director in South Mountain's history. He succeeded an ailing Sally Willeke, who became director in 1950, following her husband, Willem, who had been South Mountain's director since 1918.

With attendance declining, Steigler said his first task as director was to "upgrade" the series' quality. It seems to be working.

"For many years now," Steigler said, "we have often experienced sold out concerts."

According to Steigler, roughly 230 of 418 reserved seats are sold to season subscribers who attend all five Sunday afternoon concerts. Remaining reserved seats are sold to single-event buyers. In addition, there are 65 general admission side bench seats available for each concert.

Average annual attendance over the past five years is 1,900, Steigler said.

"In their notification, they said they wanted to honor South Mountain because of its role in presenting and sustaining chamber music performances 'of the highest level.' Those last few words touched me and pleased me so very much," Steigler said, "because that has been my singular goal in my years as director."

This year's season has one more concert to go — a program of Mozart, Bartok and Brahms at 3 p.m. Oct. 9 with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and the Johannes String Quartet.


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