Some cities have symphony halls. Beacon has a group of professional musicians who started meeting in someone’s living room, who now play regularly in the Howland Cultural Center on Main Street in Beacon, N.Y. The group is called the Howland Chamber Music Circle, and you have most likely attended one of their performances or kids instrument “petting zoos.”
For several Beaconites, listening to this amazing grade of music is an every Sunday afternoon kind of thing. We may not realize just what we have at our fingertips at the Howland Cultural Center, whose unique architecture has special acoustic advantages in which world renowned musicians come together to play. So we asked the Howland Chamber Music Circle to recall their history for our readers, so that we may better understand this group who is now popping up to perform in other locations throughout Beacon and the Hudson Valley. A board member of the Howland Chamber Music Circle, James Lichtenberg, researched and wrote this article for you:
The ‘Chamber’ of the Howland Chamber Music Circle Was A Living Room in the 1980’s
The Howland Chamber Music Circle (HCMC), founded in Beacon, N.Y. in 1993, in the verdant valley of the Hudson River, began in the 1980s, appropriately enough, in a chamber… the living room of HCMC founders Gwen and Bill Stevens (sadly, they both passed away in 2018). Gwen was an accomplished musician, teaching piano at Vassar. Friends and neighbors would arrive to enjoy spontaneous performances by other artists whom Gwen invited to play on their two gorgeous Steinway grand pianos.
One of the more frequent attendees, Polly Gage, suggested to Gwen that they also promote house concerts for gifted young musicians. With the assistance of a friend and fellow pianist, Ed Loizides, and after contacting their respective alma maters, Yale and the Manhattan School of Music, they began the process of finding young talent, expertly aided by Robert Besen, then of the Concert Artists Guild. Besen was taken by Gwen’s enthusiasm and made it possible for her and an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers to learn the ropes of bringing exciting programs to a growing audience.
Howland Chamber Music Circle Outgrows The Living Room
As the number of attendees swelled, home venues grew inadequate. Gwen began to think about a venue somewhere in Southern Dutchess County to accommodate wider audiences. Among the considerations was a music barge in the Hudson River itself.
Then, in 1992, Gwen and Bill attended an exhibit of historic photos at the Howland Cultural Center, located at the far east end of Beacon’s Main Street. The Center’s building, a gothic jewel designed by Richard Morris Hunt, features walls of richly-carved wood beneath an open vaulted ceiling, and a space capable of seating 120 people. Not surprisingly, the two HCMC founders were struck by the potential of that space for chamber music.
First HCMC Concerts Start In Howland Cultural Center In 1993
The Howland Cultural Center agreed to produce a series of concerts under their auspices. The premier three-concert season in 1993-1994 featured the Meridian Brass Ensemble, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and a string duo of Ayako Yoshida and Semyon Fridman. As Besen remembers, “[If] a walk around the Howland Center (quite different from today) was…more than a little scary, the concert was well-attended. The venue was…magnificent…. Over the years I’ve booked 39 performances.”
With the increasing abilities of the Stevens and their associates to secure talent, the growing annual programs became a staple of the Hudson Valley music calendar, with the unique venue a draw in its own right for both listeners and artists, who were only too happy to return to play in subsequent seasons. As one performer put it, “This is a great place to perform. It’s like being inside an instrument itself.” The sell-out audiences, standing and clapping for encores add, no doubt, to their pleasure. One Beaconite, also a musician, exclaimed, “You can walk out of your house and hear world-class artists just a few blocks away.”
With continuing success in the early years, it became evident that the “Circle” should be more formally established to ensure its future. In April 1999, it was incorporated as a not-for-profit membership corporation, independent of the Howland Center.
Twenty-five years later, its annual offerings have grown to include a 12-concert season, featuring four pianists and eight chamber music groups -- with Sunday afternoon performances (in the 2018/19 season) including the Juilliard and Brentano String Quartets, and pianists Jeremy Denk and Simone Dinnerstein. Along with its dozen formal concerts, the Circle also hosts a number of pop-up concerts in other Beacon venues, a Classics for Kids series, co-sponsored by the HCC, as well as music residencies in local high schools. To celebrate its founders on the group’s 25th anniversary, HCMC commissioned a beautiful string quartet by local composer Debra Kaye, performed in the spring of 2018 by the Voxare String Quartet.
The 2018/19 season also reflects the continuing aspirations of HCMC to take new paths and broaden its appeal, including this season’s “concertante” approach, adding soloists to the quartets, like the oboist James Austin Smith, who performed with the Telegraph Quartet, harpist Bridget Kibbey, who will join the Daedalus Quartet, as well as rising violinist Alexi Kenny, partnered with pianist Renana Gutman. In addition, there will be a break-out “living-room” performance by the So Percussion group, whom The New York Times called “exceptionally inventive with instruments galore!”
Established and applauded as it may now be, the Howland Chamber Music Circle is not content to rest on its laurels. Rather, it is dedicated to continuing the inspiration of its founders in finding ever new ways to bring broad and engaging programs of music to its supportive community in Beacon and beyond. The hills of the Hudson Valley are indeed alive with the sound of music.