By MEGAN DOOLEY
On Thursday night, soprano Jeanine De Bique told the story of a woman torn between her loyalty to her family and her love for a man whose family ties made him enemy to her own. She asked that the gods strike her down with lightning, “because it’s better to be dead, I guess, than to be in love,” said Ms. De Bique. She told another story of a woman who found herself unexpectedly pregnant by a cold, cruel man, and the heartbreak that ensued.
Of course, she told these stories in song, most of them delivered in a language foreign to most of the audience gathered at the Chappaquiddick Community Center for the performance. But the language barrier did nothing to disguise the intensity of that heartbreak. It shone through every facial expression and every note.
In a floor-length embellished purple gown, Ms. De Bique, and accompanying pianist Keun-A Lee, delivered a nearly two-hour concert of selections from famous operas. Ms. De Bique and Ms. Lee made up just one of the dozens of musical ensembles that Mary Beth Alger has brought to the island over the past 15 years as part of the Chappaquiddick Summer Music Festival.
“I started soon after the Chappaquiddick Community Center was built,” said Ms. Alger in an interview last week. “It just occurred to me that this would be such a lovely place to have chamber music.”
She’s been a fan of the music since the tender age of eight, and she has no idea how it started. “I don’t know how I came across it,” she said. But while all her friends were interested in more contemporary music, she stuck to the classics. “I went all the way through high school not listening to rock, only listening to chamber music,” she said. She also played the piano herself, though she admittedly never reached the level of accomplishment enjoyed by the musicians she brings in for the festival. “As the old joke goes, I wouldn’t run a festival that would have me as a performer,” she said, laughing. Instead, she practices at workshops and adult courses at the New England Conservatory of Music, and leaves the rest to the pros.
“It’s really grown, 15 years from the first year, where it had decent amateurs, until now, when we have some of the top performers in the world. These are absolutely world-class musicians now,” she said of the festival.
She started small back in 1995, inviting several amateur musicians to perform in exchange for accommodations at her home on Chappaquiddick. “I just point-blank started,” she said. “I didn’t pay them, and in exchange they got to stay at my house for a couple days. So it was sort of like a barter.”
The deal was a little sweeter than Ms. Alger lets on. Her home is an old family compound made up of the five-bedroom main house, where she lives and many of the musicians stay, and a number of smaller cottages. Over the years, even as the caliber of musicians that the festival attracts has grown and the concerts have become paid gigs, the lodging has stayed the same. And from the sound of it, it’s better than any hotel.
“I do like to cook,” said Ms. Alger humbly. “And I think one of the reasons I’ve gotten such good people is I really treat them very, very nicely when they come. Home cooked meals, a bedroom with a gorgeous view of the outer harbor, the beach in front of them if they want. I’ve made some friends over the years and met some really, really fascinating people.”
Ms. De Bique and Ms. Lee, for instance, who were accompanied by Ms. De Bique’s fiance for the duration of their visit, have acted like a “balm” to her soul after a difficult year, Ms. Alger said at the concert Thursday night. And when she described them as world-class musicians, she wasn’t exaggerating. Ms. De Bique, a native of the Caribbean island of Trinidad, won first prize in the prestigious Young Concert Artists competition in New York in the 2008-2009 awards. “This competition is extremely competitive,” said Ms. Alger. “They have absolutely stellar people . . . they go on to have incredible careers.”
Ms. De Bique’s career took her to performances with the New York Philharmonic and on to a residency at the Basel Opera in Switzerland. Ms. Lee began her performance career in Korea, and has since moved on to perform in musical collaborations in the States, Canada and Germany.
Ms. De Bique’s performance marked the second week of the three-week concert series this summer. On Thursday, Ms. Alger will welcome back a returning act. “The Claremont Trio is coming, and this will be their third time [as part of the series],” she said. Twin sisters Emily Bruskin (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) formed the Trio with Donna Kwong (piano) in 1999 at The Juilliard School. Ms. Alger said, “They are considered now to be the premier piano trio in the country.”
But how does the relatively small community center compare to the expansive concert halls where so many of these performances generally take place? “It’s an absolutely ideal setting for chamber music,” said Ms. Alger. “Chamber music was meant to be played in a small room, it was not meant to be played in these huge venues where it so often is.”
The room is cozy, and holds around 100 people comfortably, but Ms. Alger said the series averages about 70 on any given night. The musicians set up in front of the great stone fireplace at the front of the room, and guests settle into folding chairs, under a collection of handmade quilts, which hang down from the rafters. “I realized early on that the acoustics were quite bright, and I needed something to take up some of the noise,” she said. A friend made the quilts, which are now hung for each concert, and the idea has worked out quite well. “They absorb some of the sound and they look really pretty. So it’s this really charming little setting,” said Ms. Alger.
Concert expenses are covered each year by generous donors, most of whom are either community center supporters or music lovers. Ms. Alger said she feels lucky for the success of the series, which she never would have predicted years ago, as a high school kid infatuated with classical music. Back then, she also dabbled in violin, and her teacher held a music festival where she helped out as an usher. “I always loved the idea,” she said.
The Claremont Trio’s program on Thursday’s program includes Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1, No.1, the piano trio No. 2 in g minor by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Schumann’s trio in F Major, Opus 80. Tickets are $20 ($18 seniors) and are available at the door or in advance at the community center.