October 31, 2002

front page
more news
ad information
contact information


Group celebrates 20 years of chamber music in town

Mary White, Jane Baker and Ruth Bent


In the spring of 1983, several Yellow Springs music lovers got together in Ruth Bent’s kitchen and imagined what seemed to them an unreachable dream — to make Yellow Springs the home of world-class concerts of chamber music.

“We spent about five minutes saying, ‘We’re too small, we can’t do that,’ ” said Bent. “Then we said, ‘Well, the least we can do is try.’ ”

Try they did, and they succeeded. A combination of hard work and a supportive community has turned Yellow Springs into a little town with a big heart for chamber music, the home of a world-renowned concert series and competition.

This Sunday, Nov. 3, Chamber Music Yellow Springs will celebrate its 20th season with a concert by the Artis String Quartet. The performance will take place at the First Presbyterian Church, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is invited to come early to celebrate the group’s 20th season with desserts and appetizers at 6 p.m. at the church.

From the get-go, what seemed a foolish dream turned out to be remarkably doable, said a group of past and current CMYS volunteers in a recent interview.

“Two hundred people showed up at the first concert,” Bent said. “It was obviously something people wanted. We never looked back.”

These days, chamber music groups come to Yellow Springs from all over the world, and at least one — the Vienna Piano Trio — performed here a day after playing Carnegie Hall in New York. And while CMYS can’t offer the fees these groups usually command, the group lures top-notch musicians by offering something rare — a large, passionate, knowledgeable audience.

“The musicians invariably say, ‘This is a great audience,’ ” said CMYS organizer Jane Baker, who links the CMYS audience’s passion to the large number of local musicians. “Our audience acts like it’s having a good time,” said Bent. “They communicate their enthusiasm.”

Performers also appreciate the lovely acoustics at the concert’s location at the Presbyterian Church, organizers said. And the church sanctuary enhances the intimacy between audience members and musicians, CMYS members said.

“The musicians enter through the audience, and the first thing they see is the packed house,” said Bent. “That gets them excited.”

Just as unusual for the performers as the concert itself is what happens afterwards, organizers said. Unlike most concert organizers, who may offer musicians wine and cheese following the performance, or just take them back to their hotel, the CMYS group honors performers with a gourmet dinner in a private home, after which they stay with a family.

“In Yellow Springs, the musicians eat with us, they talk with us and they lodge with us,” said Jeff Huntington.

The CMYS approach clearly works. While the group still needs to convince performers who have never been to Yellow Springs to give it a try, they don’t have to convince past performers to return. In fact, Sunday’s performers, the Artis Quartet, have played in Yellow Springs twice. The group first performed here in 1985, winning the first CMYS competition.

“If they’ve been here more than once, they know it’s fun,” said Huntington.

The enthusiasm musicians have for Yellow Springs audiences is what first spurred CMYS organizers into pursuing their dream. That first informal meeting in Ruth Bent’s kitchen took place after the final concert in a chamber music series organized by former villager Bob Turoff and sponsored by Antioch College. The musicians, from the Cincinnati Symphony, lamented not coming back to Yellow Springs, saying they enjoyed the audience so much they’d play for free.

Serious music lovers, such as Baker, Bent, Huntington, Barbara and David Case, George Rike, and Louise and Frank Betcher, took note. They considered possible venues for a concert series before settling on the Presbyterian Church, which Jane Baker suggested. Char Schiff sent out fundraising letters, and applied for a $500 grant from the Yellow Springs Community Foundation. The foundation didn’t come through with the requested amount, however — instead, it offered $2,000, if CMYS could match the amount. The group did, with its first fundraising letter.

Still, said organizers, at first they seemed to be flying by the seats of their pants.

“We floundered around,” said Bent. “Jane [Baker] did everything.”

After the concerts’ initial success, CMYS relied on local and regional musicians, especially those from Cincinnati. But after two years, organizers sought more variety. To seek out new and promising performers, the group decided to pursue an idea offered by George Rike: to sponsor a competition for new young chamber music groups.

“The response was astonishing,” said Huntington, who chaired the group’s first competition, in 1985. “We had applications from Texas, from California and New York. We didn’t realize how few competitions there were at this level. There was a niche.”

While the group still sponsors the yearly Chamber Music Yellow Springs competition for young (under 30) musicians each spring and still eagerly showcases young groups, it also attracts to its four regular-season concerts musicians of a higher caliber than the series attracted when it began, said organizers.

“We’re moving up on the scale,” said former CMYS president Bruce Brandtmiller. “We like to get the groups that are going to become really famous but before they become famous.”

While groups at the highest levels of the chamber music eschelon — such as the Julliard Quartet — remain out of reach, CMYS does book groups not far below, and over the years has included in its schedule well-known ensembles such as the Colorado Quartet and the Vienna Piano Trio, and often features the winners of prestigious competitions. Performances by the Swiss-based Carmina Quartet, with homegrown musician Wendy Champney, are always well attended.

To pay for musicians, equipment and advertising, the group now has a yearly budget of $30,000, say organizers. While grants contribute to the total, by far the largest segment of the budget comes from individual contributors. And unlike most chamber music series, Chamber Music Yellow Springs relies on many small contributors rather than a few well-heeled benefactors.

“It’s one of our strengths,” said Baker. “Many people are giving modest amounts. That means more people feel ownership of the concerts.”

That sense of community ownership of Chamber Music Yellow Springs shows itself in various ways, say organizers, especially the many volunteers who offer their talents, ranging from cooking for the soup suppers preceding the concerts to building the stage to selling tickets. It’s a spirit of community involvement that’s exactly what the CMYS organizers had in mind.

In fact, after 20 years of sponsoring chamber music concerts, Chamber Music Yellow Springs organizers don’t really want to change anything. They would be happy to keep doing “more of the same,” said Ruth Bent, which is, of course, attracting some of the world’s best musicians to play for the enthusiastic audience in a tiny town in Ohio.

—Diane Chiddister