By Bryan Hay
Friends of Chamber Music Reading has been presenting some of the world’s finest music to audiences in Berks County since 1953, not only offering an intimate space to experience high-quality chamber music but also presenting opportunities to engage with performers.
With the Friends of Chamber Music, it feels as though you’re transported back to that magical, romantic time during the 1800s when private concerts were held in household salons and parlors. The organization presents its concerts in the stunning WCR Center for the Arts, 140 N. Fifth St., in the historic heart of downtown Reading in Pennsylvania's Americana Region.
Entering through the carriage-light-lit doors of the 19th-century townhouse, it feels as if you’ve been invited to a musical soiree in old Vienna. Inside, listeners settle into an acoustically rich 265-seat auditorium to enjoy string quartets, piano quartets, duos, trios and more. Elegant galleries and reception rooms inspire conversations with artists after each concert.
I recently spoke with Shari Gleason-Mayrhofer, executive director of the Friends of Chamber Music Reading, about what makes this organization such a musical treasure in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region. Professor of French horn and an accompanist at Kutztown University, she is an active musician herself, performing with chamber ensembles and orchestras throughout eastern Pennsylvania.
Here’s what she had to say.
Promoting an interest and love of classical chamber music is part of your mission, but how are you able to present such high-quality ensembles without charging admission?
We are extremely fortunate to have a loyal patron base that provides generous support of our series. We request $125/person for the entire eight-concert series but recognize that not all are able to contribute that amount; we value any donation, and so far we’ve been able to open the doors to all who wish to attend. We are grateful for grant support from the Reading Musical Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Berks Arts Council, the Presser Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation. We continually seek grant opportunities to help support our mission.
We also present a series of intimate dinner and brunch recitals at the Stirling Guest Hotel. Profits from these concerts help offset the cost of the regular evening series.
What are some of your educational outreach programs? We make every effort to bring our performing ensembles into our local school systems and universities. Musicians cater their programs to the ages attending, demonstrating everything from the make-up of a string quartet to rehearsal techniques to musical styles. In a recent program for elementary students, members the Aeolus Quartet compared the instruments in a string quartet to elements of a pizza.
Why is it important to take time to experience chamber music?
A chamber music concert can be an incredibly intimate experience. The musicians function as both soloists and supporting ensemble, performing extremely challenging works in a uniquely exposed setting. They are able to connect with the audience in a manner not possible in a larger ensemble concert, such as an orchestra or band. When these concerts take place in a small auditorium, one can truly leave the cares of the day behind and be completely captivated by the music.
What do your guest musicians have to say about performing on your series and in such an intimate space?
Every musician who comes to our venue falls in love! The acoustics are really just perfect for chamber music. After a recent performance, Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim shared, “I would put Friends up against any elite chamber music series in the country. You just have the right touch.” The Brentano String Quartet has been returning to the series for over 20 years. In addition to our wonderful facility, we have a warm, enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience; the combination provides the ultimate concert experience.
Are there any new initiatives planned for this season or next?
We are exploring expanding our programming both in the hall and out. We recently introduced the Dali String Quartet to Reading; this classically trained ensemble presents a dynamic blend of Latin American, Classical and Romantic repertoire. We are also investigating new venues outside of the city in order to share our programs with people who might not have easy access to chamber music.
What gives you the most satisfaction managing your programming and interacting with such stellar musicians?
As a musician, I find it incredibly inspiring to see performers so passionate about performing and teaching. Our artists definitely challenge the perception that classical music is a dying art, or only appeals to “old people.” I love bringing the finest musicians in the world – ensembles that perform in London, New York, Washington, D.C. – to our community, accessible to all.
For more information about Friends of Chamber Music Reading and its concert lineup, visit http://www.chambermusicreading.org.