Delores Stevens Enlivens Music of Modern Era
By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer
In 1971, on the occasion of Tisbury's tercentenary, the Montagnana Trio of Caroline Worthington (cello), John Gates (clarinet) and Delores Stevens (piano) was invited to Martha's Vineyard to participate in the celebration.
The trio, consisting of musicians who had built an international reputation, accepted the offer.
It was then, in the summer of 1971, that the trio realized what a nice place the Vineyard would be for a summer chamber music concert series. And that no such series then existed.
To the three musicians, the course was clear. They would return the following summer to perform chamber music concerts on the Vineyard. And the summer after that.
Every year since then, without fail - or, as Mrs. Stevens puts it, "not a single summer not" - the chamber concert series has graced the Vineyard.
Along the way, what initially were known as the Chilmark Chamber Concerts, named for the spiritual and physical home of the series, gave rise to the Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society.
And while the members of the Montagnana Trio eventually went their separate ways, Mrs. Stevens and her husband, photographer James Stevens, came to adopt the Vineyard as their summer home.
These days, Mrs. Stevens, who continues to work as a performer and a recording artist, is the artistic director and festival pianist for the society's 36th annual summer concert festival. The series begins next week with performances by the Ives String Quartet with Swiss clarinetist Dimitri Ashkenazy.
For each of the next five weeks, performances are scheduled on Mondays at the Old Whaling Church on Main street in Edgartown and on Tuesdays at the Chilmark Community Center. All concerts begin at 8 p.m.
Music enthralls Mrs. Stevens. At the age of four she was playing the piano, and went on to take every possible music, dancing, singing and elocution lesson she could. This was in the music-mad town of Kingman, Kans., population 3,200, whose community life was filled with concerts, and whose schools fielded not only a marching band (she played clarinet) but a senior high and a junior high orchestra.
"It was the thing to do," Mrs. Stevens said. "All my friends were involved. That was what was cool."
She remembers her excitement at receiving her first book of printed music, turning from page to page, playing from each of the selections, and sensing the world opening in front of her.
In the summer following her graduation from high school, before heading off to study music at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Mrs. Stevens heard a different sort of music, one that would fill much of her life. It was the Griller String Quartet, performing a work by Bartok, a modern composer who had died just a few years earlier. "I would like to work with that," she recalled thinking.
As one might expect for a young college music graduate from the wheatlands of Kansas, Mrs. Stevens took her first post-graduate job in Hawaii, where she performed with the Honolulu Symphony and taught music at the private Punahou School. Her family and friends, concerned about the pineapple-heavy diet they imagined her enduring, made certain that she had plenty of steaks.
A career as a California-based concert pianist followed. Then she, her friend, Ms. Worthington, and Ms. Worthington's husband, Mr. Gates, all living at the time in western Los Angeles, decided to join forces and form the Montagnana Trio.
Taking chances was the order of the day for the trio, who commissioned and then performed works by living composers.
"I was always interested in the avant-garde," Mrs. Stevens said. "I premiered many works in Los Angeles, and it became something that I felt was important for the world, and important for me. It excited me. I love bringing music to life that's never, ever been played before, and discovering how to do it, and the intricacies of it."
She thinks that is one reason why the trio went to Europe so often: many of the composers of new music were European.
"But I played it in America as well, and I'm still doing that. I never stopped."
Why pursue modern music?
"Lots of reasons," she said. "First of all, everything has to move. Nothing can stay still. Music has to be alive. We can't just be possibly regurgitating the old, and what has been. I used to say if I could get people to come to hear new music, I could convince them it was exciting and wonderful."
Mrs. Stevens acknowledges that modern music gained a bad reputation in some circles, garnered in part by the difficulty of listening to a composer, for example, who was using an unfamiliar 12-tone scale.
But she herself was excited by the possibilities of new approaches, such as filling her piano with string and bolts to properly perform a piece by the modern composer John Cage.
Further, she said, audiences in recent decades already, without realizing it, have accepted much new music - not on the radio or at the record store, but on the soundtracks of the movies that they go to see.
Mrs. Stevens also values the classical composers (who, incidentally, were composing the popular music of their own day, and whose work sometimes was derided as discordant or worse by people living in those times).
So, every summer since 1971, through her participation and leadership, the sound of chamber music - the familiar strains of Chopin and Bach, the less familiar work of more modern composers, and even music written expressly for the Vineyard - has graced the Island. And world-class performers, people whom Mrs. Stevens has come to know in her travels as a pianist around the globe, have come to participate in the festival. They have included Glenn Dicterow and Sheryl Staples, first and second violins at the New York Philharmonic.
Initially, Mrs. Stevens was able to lure performers to the chamber music festival with promises of a stay on the Vineyard and lobster dinners. The price has gone up for some of the performers, but the society has been able to compensate.
This year also brings a first for the festival: classical music in a jazz format. The August 7 and 8 concerts will feature the Bill Mays Trio with special guest Sheridon Stokes, who plays the flute. The concerts will feature music by J.S. Bach, Charlie Parker, Chopin and Cole Porter.
Indeed, Mrs. Stevens said, current classical and jazz performers are finding more and more common ground.
Audiences unfamiliar with chamber music, she said, will find the performances are an opportunity to get close to the artists, to watch how their music goes back and forth, and to try to figure out what the musicians and composer are saying.
Asked what she hopes to achieve as the society moves into the future, Mrs. Stevens said, "What I want more than anything else is I want the community to be proud of what we do, and I want them to realize what we bring to this beautiful place is absolutely appropriate. I just want it to grow in stature in every way."
What does she think of Martha's Vineyard?
"I would say I have the best of all possible worlds," Mrs. Stevens said. "This is such a beautiful place to make music. It just feels right to make such beautiful music in such a wonderful place."