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World-Class Music, in Intimate Settings, For Cheap!

September 2, 2011

Text by Tom Di Nardo.

Can you imagine hearing the world’s greatest artists, in venues scattered around the city, with their promoters actually insisting on ridiculously low ticket prices?

That’s been the mantra of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, an organization with a formal name but with the virtual patent on audience-friendliness. They presented 64 programs in their 25th season last year and they have 60 on tap this season, making them the largest promoter of their kind in the country.

Virtually every internationally-renowned pianist, violinist, instrumentalist, vocalist, major chamber ensemble and string quartet has cycled through Philly, happy to play imaginative and inspiring programs of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and many other musical giants to enthusiastic houses. Intimate venues help too – the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, the Port of History Museum, American Philosophical Museum, Fleisher Art Memorial, the Art Museum, Settlement School and Temple’s Rock Hall.

There’s a secret why the artists return: reverence and respect for the principles of founder and artistic director Anthony Checchia, who insists on relatively inexpensive ticket prices ranging from $16.50 to $23 (only the Perelman Theater tacks on an additional $4). Many of the touring artists and ensembles play the same program a few nights later at New York’s Carnegie Hall – for $65, $75 and $85, or more.

Love of music, rather than profit, has always been Checchia’s guide. In the late 1950s, he and Frank Salomon took over the administration of the famous Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, founded in 1951 by legendary pianist Rudolf Serkin. This intense crucible of gifted young musicians working closely with master artists (the current artistic directors are the unparalleled pianists Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida) has launched three generations of major names. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, insists he decided to become a performing musician at Marlboro.

“In the 1960s,” says Checchia, “there were a few small concert series in Philadelphia but nothing that lasted. We presented combinations of Marlboro players a few times, though there weren’t many good venues then. But we saw there was an audience. We incorporated in 1985 and our first performances by the Juilliard and Guarneri String Quartet sold out, with hundreds turned away. The next year we began a piano series and the concerts grew from seven to 10, then 13, 21, 26.

“Our principle has always been not to expand unless there was a need but we found there was great interest in wind players, vocalists and new music. We presented jazz for a while and all kinds of diverse programs. In recent years, we have teamed with the great young artists from the Curtis Institute, the Academy of Vocal Arts, Settlement Music School and Temple Prep, and offered master classes in schools.”

Another of Checchia’s fields of expertise is choosing the right venue, recognizing that smaller ones are often better for young talents who haven’t yet established big names.

“Some things sound better in certain places and some concerts require more intimacy,” said Checchia. “But artists know we care about them, and Philadelphia is now an important touring stop with a sophisticated audience – that doesn’t clap between movements!”

The Society’s executive director Philip Maneval, also a composer, is intensely proud of the 45 new works commissioned in the last 20 years – especially when arts funding is the first to be cut.

“We’ve presented new music by most local composers,” he says, “and take pride in a huge number of world premieres and Philadelphia premieres commissioned by the touring ensembles themselves.

“We try to connect with younger people, and stress a friendly environment. At the Philosophical Society (425 Chestnut Street) we have a social series, in which attendees have sampled wine, beer, cupcakes, chocolate and other delicacies by local vendors while getting acquainted.”

Checchia and Maneval are present at virtually every concert. They’re the smiling guys you’ll see in the lobby afterwards, being thanked by a blissful crowd.

Here are a few highlights from the upcoming series: pianist Richard Goode (November  10), the brilliant Greek violinist Leonidas Kovakos (November 7), Austrian mezzo Angelica Kirchschlager (November 15) and the Takacs String Quartet (November 11), plus pianist Di Wu (October 23).

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