In an empty church in Adams, this group plans to teach children to play music
A music academy for 10- to 18-year-olds to be led by skilled faculty
ADAMS — Eighty-five years old, dapper, intense and steadily draining his children’s inheritance, Donald Sommer bowed his head Wednesday evening in a suddenly not-so-abandoned-anymore church.
His eyes clenched shut, Sommer stood beside the pews and nodded as if receiving divine affirmation — yes, yes and yes — as he listened to the sounds of his dreams coming true.
Up in the sanctuary, where the word of God once resounded against the high rafters, a couple of hepcat New York City horn players (who may or may not have been sent by God) doodled a few minutes worth of masterful improv, thereby announcing a different sort of resurrection and renewal.
If all goes according to plan, come August, a new music academy will open in the former St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Commercial Street. Dubbed the Berkshires’ Academy for Advanced Musical Studies (BAAMS), it will provide kids ages 10 to 18 with the opportunity to study and play music year-round with an all-star faculty.
For Sommer, this marks a milestone in a town with a deep need for postindustrial reimagining. For the two dozen business and civic leaders gathered for the occasion in the chilly former church on Wednesday evening, those horns announced the good news that, at the very least, a beautiful old, stone building will be put back to use.
A gazillion details need to be ironed out before August, but for now, a few remarkable pieces are in place — a building and a faculty — thanks either to a higher power or an astounding set of chance circumstances.
Strangers on a train
Let’s begin with a meeting of strangers on a Berkshire-bound Amtrak train in 2017. On board were William Kolis, esquire, and Richard Boulger, trumpeter.
“Richard Boulger?” asked an astounded Kolis, upon hearing the trumpeter introduce himself to another passenger. “The same Richard Boulger whose father taught at Hoosac Valley High School?”
Yes, that Richard Boulger — a 1984 graduate of Drury High School in North Adams who went on to make good, studying under the great Freddie Hubbard and playing with a veritable who’s who in jazz and popular music, including The Allman Brothers’ Band. Based in Brooklyn, Boulger also made a name for himself by bringing a singular style of music education to underprivileged kids.
And yes, that William Kolis — a 1973 graduate of Hoosac Valley who settled in Cleveland, Ohio, became a litigation lawyer, and who makes a dozen or so sorties home to Adams each year as the president of the Adams-Anthony Center and son to a loving mother named Mary Jane on Haggerty Street.
On the train that day, bound for the Berkshires, Boulger and Kolis hit it off. With the help of a cast of characters, they eventually put together successful summer jazz academies for kids in 2018 and 2019 out of Hoosac Valley High School.
Then, recently, they started to dream bigger. That’s when their mutual friend, Mike Mach, put them in touch with a certain elderly gentleman down the road, a music lover and entrepreneurial daredevil: one Donald Sommer.
A lifelong Adams resident, retired public school educator and past member of most of the boards and committees Adams has ever conceived, Sommer had been making utterances for years about St. Mark’s and opening a music center of some sort.
When Boulger and crew met him, everyone got excited — to the point where a couple of weeks ago, Sommer put his name on the deed to St. Mark’s. He’s renaming the place after the two Olgas in his life — his mother and his sister — both of whom instilled in him a love for music. And so St. Mark’s, which closed about eight years ago, will become the Olga C. Sommer Center for Music and Art. BAAMS will serve as its flagship artistic endeavor.
The deal is, Sommer will put his money into getting the place into proper shape. Boulger will run the academy. Kids will come. Lives will change. And Adams will become a hothouse for first-rate music instruction.
The nearly 150-year-old church needs a heating system, electricity and substantial interior cosmetic work. Sommer got a decent deal on the place. He said he paid $50,000. By August, when all is said and done, including carving out soundproof practice rooms, he expects to be about $150,000 into it.
“Sure, we’re all OK with it,” says Sommer’s daughter, Deb, a real estate broker in town. “It’s the best thing my dad has ever done.”
A booster shot?
BAAMS, says Sommer, will serve as a much-needed booster shot to his hometown, which has watched as other Berkshire communities have pulled themselves from the postindustrial doldrums by means of the arts.
“Anything like this is always a positive step,” says Adams Town Administrator Jay Green, who attended the Wednesday gathering. “The economic development in Adams isn’t going to rest on one project. It’s going to be a diverse menu, and this definitely can be a significant component to that.”
Boulger will run BAAMS with the assistance of the saxophonist Alex Foster, a veteran of the “Saturday Night Live” house band. Instructors who have signed on include pianist Charles Blenzig, drummer Victor Jones, bassist Alex Blake and guitarist David Gilmore (of the Berklee College of Music).
BAAMS will teach fundamentals of theory, composition and improvisation. Boulger says students will be selected following auditions. Those who may need help with tuition will get it. He said plans also include adult workshops and classes via livestream.
“How this business model will all work, we have to figure it out in a very short time,” says Kolis. “We’ll be looking for grants and benefactors. Trying to create an academy that’s self-sustaining — that’s a challenge. But, by God, we’ve got the goods.”
Wednesday evening, Sommer weaved his way among the attendees, passing out press packets as if they were missalettes.
“Did you get one of these?” he said. “Here, did you get one of these? These guys, these musicians — I don’t think people understand how lucky we are. Have you seen their bios? First-class bios.
“This is what we’ve needed,” he said. “This is what I’ve been looking for for three years — these kinds of guys to put it all together.”
By the way, even though he collects musical instruments, Sommer can’t play a lick. He’s loved music all his life. He recalls saving his paper route money to buy an Enrico Caruso record. On Saturday afternoons, he’d be the only kid in the neighborhood to excuse himself so he could go home and listen to the live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera.
A music school in Adams?
“Finally!” says Sommer.
He owns the Greylock Apartments complex. He owns the Haflinger Haus restaurant and inn, too. But his heart will be restless until it rests in an old church transformed into a music academy.
Why not? As far as Sommer is concerned, he’s got a few things figured out, including the meaning of life itself.
“It’s about being sure that, if you’re a little successful, you take care of some of the people who aren’t as successful,” he says. “I think that’s what I’m doing here. I’ve been saving money all my life. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve got a few dollars that were going to go to my kids. We had a family meeting, and we all decided they’re all doing OK, so I would take that money and put it into this school.
“Adams is having a very difficult time,” he said. “I’m trying to plug one little hole of that — provide a place for kids.”
Call 347-495-9248 or visit adamsanthonycenter.com/baams for more information.
Felix Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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