Gregory W. Brown and Dan Brown

Joseph Dalton

April 24, 2022

What would it be like if Robert Langdon, acclaimed professor of symbology at Harvard University (and fictional hero of Dan Brown’s best-selling novels, including “The Da Vinci Code”) explored hidden symbols and secret codes buried in music instead of art and architecture? The answers will be made known in “Sub-Rosa: Secrets Revealed” a program of choral music with the Skylark Vocal Ensemble on Saturday, April 30 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Mass. The concert is presented by Close Encounters with Music.

The concept of the program arose about five years ago during conversations between Matthew Guard, Skylark’s founder and artistic director, and Gregory W. Brown, a well-recognized composer who is Dan Brown’s brother. It turns out there’s lots of music in the Brown family. Their mother was a church organist while their father was a math teacher. Early in his professional life Dan Brown pursued being a pop songwriter. He readily agreed to be part of the choral music project.

“Sub Rosa” will have a strong visual element with photographs, illustrations, and animations that accompany the music. Think Tom Hanks as Langdon with his PowerPoint. But rather than Hanks/Langdon, the smart fellow unlocking and explaining the esoterica will be author Dan Brown himself via video also with several other experts. Guard, the conductor, doesn’t promise the presentation will be quite as well-paced as a Robert Langdon page-turner, but he says so far “it’s been fun and interesting.”

Skylark has a well-earned reputation for creative programming and has been nominated for three Grammy Awards during its 10-year history. In putting together the components of “Sub-Rosa,” Guard may have outdone himself in terms of the historical breadth of repertoire. The music stretches from the medieval with Hildegard Von Bingen to contemporary times, with music by four living composers. Also on the bill are Guillaume Dufay, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, and Per Norgard among others. Gregory W. Brown and Melissa Dunphy wrote new works specifically for the program, which is being performed by the 16-voice ensemble in three locations in eastern Massachusetts during the week prior to coming to the Berkshires.

“Long-forgotten historical connections have been buried in manuscripts of choral music over the centuries, and I think our audiences will be fascinated to experience them,” says Guard.

“Sub Rose: Secret Symbols” takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington, Mass. Tickets are $28-$52. Call (413) 528-0100 or visit:

Also on Saturday, April 30, the eastern New York chapter of the American Guild of Organists is celebrating its centennial with a free concert at 3 p.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Albany. The featured artist is Joey Falla, who is director of music at University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill.

Falla was raised in Hawaii and took a circuitous route to becoming a professional organist that includes significant time spent in the Capital Region. Falla studies at RPI in Troy where he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s in lighting, while serving as organist at First United Presbyterian in Troy. He then turned fully toward music and took a master’s in performance from Yale. He has also been a resident scholar at Duke.

A highlight of Falla’s program will be a new work with an Albany twist. Al Fedak’s “An Albany Processional” is based on the hymn tune “Albany,” which was written in 1886 for the city’s bicentennial by John Albert Jeffery (1855-1929), organist at All Saints Episcopal Cathedral. Fedak is an internationally known composer of sacred music and currently serves as organist at First Reformed in Scotia. It’s not hard to imagine that future generations might one day pay tribute to his music in the same manner.

There’s a familiar footnote to this event listing. It was planned to take place in 2020 but the pandemic got in the way. The AGO chapter was founded in September 1920 and currently consists of over 100 organists, choir directors, and organ enthusiasts in the greater Capital District.

The organization provides professional networking, support and fellowship and produces a few concerts annually. Keep up with the group at:

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

A Times Union contributor since 2002, Dalton has received writing awards from ASCAP and the New York State Associated Press. After starting his career at CBS Records, he ran the CRI label for 10 years and produced 300 CDs of American music. His third book “Washington’s Golden Age” was released in 2018. You can reach him at [email protected].

Skylark Music Group

By Sharon Smullen, Eagle correspondent April 14, 2022

GREAT BARRINGTON — Mysteries worthy of best-selling author Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” abound when Skylark Vocal Ensemble makes its Berkshires debut April 30 on the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center stage. The concert, “Hidden Symbols, Secret Codes,” is presented by Close Encounters With Music.

“What might happen if Robert Langdon, acclaimed [fictional] professor of Symbology at Harvard University, were enlisted to explore hidden symbols, secret codes, and long-forgotten historical connections buried in manuscripts of choral music over the centuries? I think audiences will be fascinated to find out!,” writes Matthew Guard, Skylark’s artistic director, in the program description.

Sixteen Skylark a cappella singers will perform in a multimedia presentation of live music and projected photographs, illustrations and animations, which includes recorded video introductions by Brown, and in-person commentary by his brother, composer Gregory Brown.

“In ‘The Da Vinci Code’ [movie], Tom Hanks [playing Langdon] gives a PowerPoint presentation showing symbols over the centuries. If that were applied to music, what would that look like? That’s the concept we came up with,” Guard said when reached by phone at his home outside New York City, freshly returned from the Grammy Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

“We were nominated for best choral performance for the third time in four years,” he said of the Grammy ceremonies. “We didn’t win, but that’s totally fine because there were six wonderful nominees.” The ensemble has released nine albums to date.

Guard, a former business management consultant, founded Skylark Vocal Ensemble a decade ago with his wife, Carolyn Guard, the ensemble’s executive director. The couple met singing in Harvard College choirs. Formerly based in Atlanta, they relocated to the northeast in 2020.

“It’s definitely a family entrepreneurial venture,” he said.

Five years ago, Gregory Brown — Matthew Guard was introduced to the choral music composer by a mutual friend — invited Skylark to perform a new piece at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where Brown and his brother Dan grew up on campus, the sons of a math teacher.

“We had a wonderful experience working with Greg,” Guard said.

A year later, while he worked on a fairytale storytelling project, Guard asked Gregory Brown if they could create a program “that is a hybrid of music and story and mystery, based around his and Dan’s work.”

When approached, Dan Brown was very open to the idea, Guard said, a big fan of the author’s books.

“The main character, Robert Langdon, studies symbols, uncovering them in history, art and architecture,” Guard explained. “There’s a lot of hidden symbols and structures in musical composition, often times not visible with the naked eye, or you would not hear them without knowing they’re there.”

Gregory Brown and Guard spent two years finding pieces “that have really interesting hooks, things that would be fun to bring to light,” Guard said, stitching them together “with a trail of clues, hidden things the audience wouldn’t necessarily understand, [like] the books’ reveal.”

The approximately 70-minute program is divided evenly between old and new works, the earliest being a Hildegard von Bingen chant that opens the concert.

“We have a really good mixture, wonderful renaissance music and also living composers,” Guard noted.

Works by famed composers such as Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar sit alongside lesser known names including Knut Nystedt, Sarah Rimkus and Fahad Siadat, and new pieces written by Brown and Melissa Dunphy.

Included is an excerpt from Brown’s “Missa Charles Darwin,” its melody derived from DNA from one of Darwin’s finches. The work, Guard said, inspired and is mentioned in Dan Brown’s book “Origin,” which addresses the fight between religious belief and science.

While the composer will appear in-person, Dan Brown will participate via pre-recorded video, as he will be in London for “The Da Vinci Code” play.

“All the music will be live,” Guard said. “The multimedia presentation runs throughout to help show some of these hidden symbols.”

Guard describes the program as part historical mystery lecture, part performance.

“It’s in that fun, mystery theme, uncovering things and being interesting to audiences,” he said. “We’ll have a world-class vocal ensemble performing at a very high level, singing [music] that is moving and beautiful.”

As is often the case in Dan Brown’s novels, though, the project’s course did not go according to plan. Just a month from its completion in 2020, “the rug got pulled out from under us,” Guard said.

“Carolyn and I were in Europe in February 2020 having meetings about a future tour to the UK and France, literally two weeks before the world shut down,” Guard explained.

The project sat on the shelf for a year and a half.

“About four or five months ago, we picked it back up and vastly restructured it, making it even better,” Guard reported.

The program will be rehearsed in residence at Phillips Exeter Academy prior to four public performances across Massachusetts during the last week of April.

Singers performing in this concert are drawn from Skylark’s roster of 25 to 30 artists. As few as four or as many as 26 are engaged based on repertoire and project needs, hailing from throughout New England to California and Oregon.

“The artists are all professional vocalists, full-time musicians or educators in the choral world who also perform,” Guard explained. “The vast majority perform in professional choirs or do solo work, opera, or voice teaching.”

Besides its Boston-based subscription series, the ensemble’s U.S. appearances include New York City, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. On its first international tour in 2018, the London Times called Skylark “the highlight” of a festival of leading UK choirs.

This concert is dedicated to the late John Stookey, longtime CEWM supporter and friend, who brought Skylark to the attention of Yehuda Hanani, Close Encounters With Music founder, artistic director and a distinguished cellist.

“He was a great lover of vocal music,” Hanani said during a phone interview. “This group is one of the finest in the country, and I immediately realized it belongs with us in our exploration of music and beyond.”

CEWM has a long history of adventurous thematic programming during its three decades in the Berkshires.

“We always look for unusual angles, things off the beaten path,” Hanani said. “The theme guides the evening, it’s more intellectually minded, more informative this way.

“We’re having an exceptionally exciting season. The concert following this, we’re presenting a very seldom heard piece by Benjamin Britten for unaccompanied oboe based on themes and tales from ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid. In June, we have an amazing Flamenco dancer who defected from Cuba, she is absolutely stunning.” That concert will also premiere a piece by Cuban composer Jorge Martin.

CEWM is no stranger to new music. “Every year we play at least one new piece,” Hanani said. “Many have become mainstream chamber music repertoire, played all over the world. We have a commissioning project [that] supports promising young composers and also established ones, major composers like Thea Musgrave.”

CEWM concerts are video recorded for streaming online, free of charge after a certain period, Hanani said, enabling them to reach people from California to the midwest.

Relieved on this occasion from his usual role of providing commentary during the program or performing on cello, Hanani will be able to enjoy the concert as an audience member.

“I’m looking forward to being enlightened myself,” he said. “I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ when it was a very hot book. I don’t know if it’s all factual, but it was fascinating all the same. It was like a detective story, so shrouded in mystery and suspense.”

“It’s not your typical concert,” Guard said. “I hope people will walk away with two abiding impressions: one, wasn’t that beautiful and virtuosic; and the other, that was incredibly interesting and cool.”

Find the original article here: The Berkshire Eagle.

The Roaring Twenties Flyer

From “In The Spotlight”

December 13, 2021

Close Encounters with Music, Great Barrington, MA
December 12, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Since the second live concert by Close Encounters with Music at the Mahaiwe was subtitled “Berlin, Paris, New York,” an ingratiating account of the 1924 Gershwin classic “Fascinating Rhythm” by tenor William Ferguson and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute was an apt and delightful opener. CEWM Artistic Director and cellist Yehuda Hanani then introduced the program with his trademark humor and erudition, gleefully quoting Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” to characterize the vocal and instrumental music of the 1920’s.

Pianist Renana Gutman next brought dazzling dexterity to the almost shockingly modern-sounding 1927 “Five Jazz Etudes” by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who perished in a Nazi prison camp in 1942. American Samuel Barber’s 1927 cello sonata followed, a “sunny piece,” in Hanani’s words, “without an ounce of cynicism,” written when the composer was just seventeen. Hanani and Jokubaviciute were expressive in the opening “Allegro ma non troppo,” tender and mercurial in the central “Adagio,” and visceral in the “Allegro appassionato” finale.

For the second half of the concert, Ferguson and Jokubaviciute were joined by mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson in a wide-ranging selection of more and less familiar songs by composers active in all three cities during the 1920s. While projected translations of the French and German lyrics would have been helpful, both singers enunciated their texts so clearly and acted them so skillfully that their meaning always came through in the Mahaiwe’s plush acoustic.

Highlights included: Johnson’s incisive “Supply and Demand” by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, her sensuous “Speak Low” by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, and her dramatic “La Vie en Rose” by Marguerite Monnot and Edith Piaf. Ferguson’s varied trio of chansons by Francis Poulenc, his powerful “Bilbao” by Weill and Brecht, and his lively rendering of Dave Frishberg’s hilarious “Another Song about Paris” were a fitting tribute to the recently deceased jazz master; and Jokubaviciute’s exquisitely sensitive and versatile pianism throughout the program.

Next up for CEWM is a “Folk and Baroque” program, featuring guitarist Eliot Fisk, contralto Emily Marvosh, and Hanani, at St. James Place in Great Barrington on February 26, 2022.

All Mahaiwe events require proof of vaccination and a photo ID for entrance and masking inside the theater.

Christlez Bacon Performing

By Emily Thurlow, Eagle correspondent Nov 16, 2021

GREAT BARRINGTON — When a chamber music event is mentioned, mental associations don’t tend to include hip-hop or flamenco, but the upcoming season of Close Encounters with Music might change that.

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Close Encounters With Music is launching into a season that will transport its audience to Berlin, Paris and New York in the 1920s, to Havana for flamenco dancing and back with Grammy-nominated beatbox artist Christylez Bacon.

In addition to the milestone, Close Encounters returns to in-person performances, said Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani.

“We are emerging from this prolonged hibernation that was imposed on us by COVID-19, and it is a very special feeling,” said Yehuda. “Our grand reopening concert on Nov. 21 features works with absolutely universal appeal — Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, French film composer Claude Bolling’s Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio, Gershwin and the amazing rapper Christylez Bacon, who will regale us with his unusual talents as a human beatbox [oral percussion]. In effect, he continues the oral tradition of storytelling through his lyrics.

“We are returning to the concert stage with redoubled enthusiasm, and with programs more innovative and more exciting than ever.”

Last season, “Music Undefeated!,” musicians performed in front of an empty house, with live performances presented virtually. While the pandemic forced Close Encounters to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances, what was discovered was that people from all over the world — from Phoenix to Chicago to Florida to even Korea and China — tuned in for concerts, said Hannah Hanani, vice president and secretary on Close Encounters’ board of directors. As such, Close Encounters will continue to provide a virtual experience for those who cannot be there in person.

In organizing such a presentation of composers and instruments across styles and genres, Yehuda Hanani likened his process to that of a gourmet chef preparing a menu.

“You try to harmonize the seven concerts and make sure that they flow, and provide a certain continuation and variety, all at the same time,” he said. “We frame each concert with a theme — not necessarily being a musical theme. It could be a social or historical theme, of or relating to painting or literature, and it brings the audience into the music in different ways, in through different doors. People have always told me that they listen differently once they’ve heard this introduction.”

Yehuda was among one of the very first performers to offer an introduction, which was considered rather revolutionary at the time, which is now done everywhere, said Hannah Hanani.

“Thirty years ago people were just stringing together disparate pieces just because they liked the pieces,” she said. “There wasn’t a cohesive theme, so, he’s really been a visionary.”

The process also taps into Hannah’s background of journalism, as it requires a lot of sleuthing, said Yehuda Hanani.

Through their decades of research, the Hananis have uncovered forgotten composers of the past and discovered, for example, Eduard Franck, a student of Felix Mendelssohn, and introduced his music to the U.S. Hannah Hanani described how she “followed the trail” to find detailed records after working with librarians in Pittsburgh and New York.

“Once you have the material, you decide what you do want and you go with it,” she said.

Flamenco Dancing
Classical Spanish and flamenco dancer and choreographer Irene Rodriguez has been the leading figure of Spanish dance in Cuba and will usher that in a performance of Musica Latina on June 12.

Upcoming guest participants for this season include the most recent Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist, Yekwon Sunwoo; Liang Wang, first oboe of the New York Philharmonic; Itamar Zorman, a Tchaikovsky Competition award-winning violinist; opera, lieder and choral vocalists; flamenco and classical guitarists; and returning favorites on piano and strings. The season begins at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, with performers, including Bacon, pianist Michael Chertock, violinist Xiao-Dong Wang, double bass James Cammack, percussionist Arti Dixson and cellist Yehuda Hanani.

Yehuda Hanani added that Schoenfield’s runaway classical hit, Café Music for piano trio, sets the tone for an especially celebratory reopening. Café Music combines elements of classical, jazz, klezmer and whimsy. Claude Bolling’s musings in the Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio offer up interpolations of boogie-woogie and ragtime with Baroque underpinnings; Gershwin is represented with his Three Preludes for Piano; and includes a benediction from Beethoven (Romance No. 2 in F Major for violin and piano).

If you go

What: Café Music — Jazz, Rap and Grand Reopening

Who: Michael Chertock, piano; Xiao-Dong Wang, violin; Christylez Bacon, hip-hop artist; Artie Dixson, percussion; James Cammack, double bass; Yehuda Hanani, cello

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts, Great Barrington

Admission: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

Information and tickets: 413-528-0100;

COVID-19 safety protocols: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results within 48 hours, photo ID and masks will be required.


The Roaring Twenties — Berlin, Paris, New York

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 12

What: A tribute to the decade of artistic dynamism in theater, film, art and music almost unparalleled in cultural history.

Who: Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano; William Ferguson, tenor; Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano; and Yehuda Hanani, cello

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

Folk and Baroque

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 22

What: From High Baroque to village dances, South American indigenous flavors and ethereal liturgical music, and from the jig to the tango — a program bridging worlds that grew out of common ground.

Who: Eliot Fisk, guitar; Emily Marvosh, contralto; and Yehuda Hanani, cello

Where: St. James Place, Great Barrington

Tickets: $52 general seating; $15 students

A Night of Chopin and Brahms: Presenting Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo

When: 4 p.m. March 22

What: Some of the most astounding keyboard music ever written, Chopin’s Four Scherzi, which possess an almost demonic power and energy, receive a masterful performance by Yekwon Sunwoo, the most recent Cliburn laureate.

Who: Yekwon Sunwoo, piano; Daniel Phillips, violin; Daniel Panner, viola; and Yehuda Hanani, cello

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

Skylark A Cappella Vocalists: Hidden Symbols, Secret Codes

When: 6 p.m. April 30

What: What might happen if Robert Langdon of “The Da Vinci Code” were enlisted to explore hidden symbols, secret codes and long-forgotten historical connections buried in manuscripts of choral music over the centuries? Join Grammy-nominated Skylark to find out.

Featuring video introductions by author Dan Brown and stunning new music by Gregory W. Brown.

Who: Skylark Ensemble; Matthew Guard, conductor

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

Reeds and Strings

When: 4 p.m. May 29

What: Liang Wang, first oboist of the New York Philharmonic, leads the way from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet to Cimarosa’s Oboe Concerto and Britten’s Six Metamorphosis after Ovid, which will be accompanied by historic classical paintings of the mythological tales.

Who: Liang Wang, oboe; Itamar Zorman, violin; Michael Strauss, viola; and Yehuda Hanani, cello

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

Musica Latina

When: 4 p.m. June 12

What: Classical Spanish and Flamenco dancer and choreographer Irene Rodriguez, a leading figure of Spanish dance in Cuba, performs new dance work specifically choreographed for Close Encounters.

Who: Irene Rodriguez, dancer and choreographer; Giola Schmidt, violin; Max Levinson, piano; Cristian Puig, flamenco guitar; and Yehuda Hanani, cello

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Tickets: $52, orchestra and mezzanine seats; $28, balcony seats; $15 students

See the original The Berkshire Eagle article here.

Prism Quartet

By Sharon Smullen, Eagle Correspondent

WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Think of a classical music quartet and strings likely spring to mind — certainly not saxophones.

For 37 years, PRISM Quartet has put the single reed-powered brass instruments front and center stage; and on Saturday, Sept. 18, Close Encounters With Music brings them to TurnPark Art Space for an outdoor concert amid two dozen sculptures.

“PRISM Quartet is an astonishing, vibrant group of four saxophonists,” said Yehuda Hanani, cellist and Close Encounters artistic director. “They are superb, very fine musicians, [with] a varied repertoire with lots of contemporary composers.”

Their program, “Hit Parade,” includes works from Bach to present day, “mixing new and old music adapted by wonderful composers,” said Matthew Levy, the last original member still performing with the Philadelphia-based quartet. “These are some of our very favorite pieces that we love to play. It’s all very listenable and enjoyable.”

Levy, tenor, along with Timothy McAllister, soprano; Zachary Shemon, alto; and Taimur Sullivan, baritone, make up PRISM Quartet. 

“[Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom] made a gift to PRISM of ‘Schumann Bouquet,’ a beautiful adaptation from Robert Schumann’s piano book ‘Album for the Young,’” Levy said. “Bolcom has written many pieces for saxophone, so he really understands the sound world and lens.”

He added, that Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Pagine” (Pages) is an anthology derived from works by Bach, Scarlatti and Gershwin, while Michael Daugherty’s “Steamboat” is a “fun rollicking piece drawn from his tuba concerto, [with] strong jazz influence.”

“A saxophone quartet can blend in this incredibly homogenous way, like an organ, with resonating overtones,” Levy said. “It’s a journey; we’re always trying to find a little more beauty.”

Formed in 1984 by students of renowned University of Michigan saxophone teacher Donald Sinta, the ensemble “evolved very organically,” Levy said, with successful competitions, early management, and regional touring leading to national and international engagements.

“We self-present concerts in three states and produce our recordings on our own label. A whole infrastructure helps us realize our vision,” he said. “[Dating back to the 1840s,] you can find groups throughout the saxophone’s history. [As] more and more spring up, chamber music competitions are inundated with saxophone quartets, there’s been an explosion of interest.”

PRISM draws musicians from saxophone studies “mecca” University of Michigan, where performance practices help them blend into the quartet, Levy said. Current members are all 15-25 year ensemble veterans, who teach at Temple, Northwestern and Missouri universities. Soprano player McAllister replaced Sinta.

“Education is really core to our work,” Levy said.

They also have expanded saxophone quartet repertoire by commissioning some 300 pieces over the years.

“When we [started], most repertoire came from mid-20th-century French conservatory school. We wanted to develop works through collaborations with composers at different stages of their careers — master composers who’ve never written saxophone music, Pulitzer Prize-winners, students,” he said. 

This concert follows open-air park performances in Philadelphia and N.Y.C., their first since early 2020.

“Given the state of the world, I think playing outside is a good idea,” Levy said.

Audiences at TurnPark’s rustic stone amphitheater will sit on cushioned stone ledges, folding chairs, or their own lawn chairs.

“In addition to showcasing and adding to [our] own sculpture collection, one of the park’s objectives has been a complementary performance program,” said Alexander Zaretsky, special projects associate for TurnPark Art.

Past events range from classical music concerts by chamber groups and BSO musicians to dance, theater, comedy and film nights. Patrons can arrive early to view artworks.

“It’s exciting to welcome something new and different,” Zaretsky said. “The park is, to some extent, a blank canvas that we try to fill in.”

During lockdown, PRISM released five backlogged albums, with two more due this fall.

Close Encounters With Music also made the most of the pandemic pause.

“We did not miss a beat,” Hanani said. “We had six concerts in the Mahaiwe, sometimes with an entirely empty house, and everything was streamed to our audiences.”

The one bright spot, he said, “was we reached people far away, in Latin America and Europe.” Plans include streaming future concerts, including PRISM Quartet.

Close Encounters returned to in-person programming this summer with two outdoor performances at The Mount in Lenox.

Hanani describes the TurnPark event as “our Janus concert,” referencing the Roman god of transitions’ two faces — one looking back, the other forward. “It finishes our summer season and previews our next season at the same time.”

“The main thing is to keep going, it’s a whole new reality,” he said. “We’re being very optimistic: our slogan is ‘Music Undefeated!’”


Music: Darryl Gangloff

For a quarter of a century, Close Encounters with Music has presented chamber music with commentary to both entertain and inform audiences in the Berkshires and beyond. Under the guidance of founder and Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani, the organization has offered more than 200 thematic concerts that put the composers and their time periods in perspective with additional context.

“That’s the underlying principle: Thematic programming with the best performers,” said Vice President Hannah Hanani, who is Yehuda’s wife. Over the years, they’ve commissioned work from distinguished composers, including Osvaldo Golijov, Paul Schoenfield, Robert Beaser, John Musto, Kenji Bunch and Lera Auerbach. Actors such as Sigourney Weaver, Richard Chamberlain and Jane Alexander have appeared as guest narrators.

“There’s always something adventurous about our pro-gram,” Yehuda said. “Expect the unexpected.”

In celebration of its 25th anniversary season — which kicks off on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. with a performance by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington — Close Encounters with Music is marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York state. In fact, this is the start of a three-season initiative to highlight works by women composers.

“This area is so connected to history and American culture and artists and writers, it’s so plugged in to all that, that we try to mine the local connections,” Hannah said. “A lot of the ferment was right here. Susan B. Anthony was born in Adams. There was a march from New York City to Albany along the Hudson River. Ethel Smyth’s opera “Der Wald” is the only piece by a woman the Met has performed in the last 100 years.”

As part of this theme, the Hananis have commissioned Thea Musgrave, Tamar Muskal, Joan Tower and Judith Zaimont to each write three-minute profiles for a “quilt” that focuses on “women of valor,” including Smyth, Emma Lazarus and Sojourner Truth. This quilt will be performed during a season-ending gala at the Mahaiwe on June 10.

“These stories really have to be told, whether through music, art or schools,” Hannah said. As part of this three-season program, the Hananis hope to create an arts curriculum unit that will be taught in high schools. They’re certainly familiar with education initiatives — the Catskill High Peaks Music Festival, a program of Close Encounters with Music, attracts approximately 50 students every summer.

“It has lectures, nature tours and a superb faculty. It’s an inspiring 10 days in the mountains,” Hannah said. “It’s amazing to see people bonding through music.”

Close Encounters with Music’s 25th anniversary season will feature concerts at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place in Great Barrington, Mass., as well as two talks at The Mount in Lenox, Mass, and the Hudson Opera House in Hudson, N.Y.


Exactly why Close Encounters with Music has subtitled its June 8 evening at Tanglewood “Grieg Revival” remains, in the words of the King of Siam, a puzzlement. Certainly Grieg’s tuneful Peer Gynt Suite, Piano Concerto, three violin sonatas and the most popular of his many songs are so frequently performed that no revival is necessary. But in the case of the main title for the evening, Nordic Lights, the reason is clear. The seeds for the evening, which includes some of Grieg’s most glorious smaller-scaled music as well as spoken excerpts from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Hans Christian Andersen’s works, both read by Broadway and Western Massachusetts Shakespearian sensation Tina Packer, lie in cellist Yehuda Hanani’s frequent trips to Scandinavia for summer festivals.

“On one of these occasions,” he reports, “I was taken to the Finnish woods at midnight, when the sun still shone, to pick wild berries. The colleague who ac-companied me said that the reason the berries were so sweet and succulent was because of their endless exposure to sunlight.” With his taste buds tingling at the thought, Hanani began to ponder the ramifications of life in a region where the sun shines all night in the summer and goes into apparent hibernation in the winter.

“I had never made this connection between the tastiness of the berries and the several months they’re exposed to the midnight sun,” he says. “Those long summers, where everyone seems intoxicated and dizzy, offset the darkness of the winters, with their long brooding nights where everyone goes inward, and many become depressed and suicidal. I wonder if this very strong polarization of the seasons reflects in the dramatic nature of Ibsen’s plays and Bergman’s movies, with the contrast between darkness and the summertime of Wild Strawberries.”

It is the intoxication of Nordic summers that Hanani and his fellow artists hope to share in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Their main focus is Grieg because his music so clearly evokes place and culture. “His music invokes the place and the culture; you can smell the pine forest and see the fjords,” claims Hanani. “It is tre-mendously physical and immediate, and it is so attractive. You even get a sense of a beautiful tradition of embroidery, native dress, music redolent of nature, and humble homes. As Grieg himself said, his aim was to build dwellings for men [and women] in which they might feel at home and happy.”

Inside and Out

One of the binding forces between Grieg and Ibsen, who were good friends, was their love of Peer Gynt. Packer, who is very much drawn to Ibsen’s feminist consciousness, notes that he “translated the ancient ferocity of his country’s history and landscape into domestic dramas that shook the foundations of European thought: the sense of climbing to the top of mountains and plunging into the depths, the unconscious mind held in the symbolism of the fjords, a combination of great space and small interior rooms from which there may be no escape.”

“Ibsen maps the mind in a way no other playwright does,” she says. It will be very interesting to experience how her readings further illumine the brilliant music that surrounds them.

When I learned that some of Grieg’s most popular songs would be sung by baritone Mischa Bouvier, the familiarity of his name drove me to his website. There I found a glowing quote from San Francisco Classical Voice, a publication I review for. Searching further, I discovered the author of the quote—“immensely sympa-thetic, soulful voice… It’s easy to see why this presumably young artist won awards in four competitions in 2009–2010; his rare vocal and interpretive gifts all but ensure many major solo turns in the years ahead”—was none other than Jason Victor Serinus. Is it a sign of impending old age when you can no longer retain the names of the young artists you love? In any case, consider this an endorsement.

After a performance of Grieg’s virtuosic Violin Sonata No. 3 by Ara Gregorian and pianist Adam Neiman, Hanani joins them to perform Brahms’ gorgeous Trio No. 1, Op. 8. Why Brahms? Not only did Brahms and Grieg know each other, not only were they friendly, but the oft “autumnal” nature of the brooding composer also reminds us of the darkness that follows the Nordic summer’s light. “I’m fond of this first trio for an interesting reason,” says Hanani. “It’s the only piece of chamber music by Brahms for which we have two versions. He wrote it as a young man, and then, much later in life, revised it. It’s fascinating to see how his final version combines the passion of youth with the experience and wisdom that come with maturity.” Is Hanani being a bit selfish by providing this rationale for sticking Brahms in the middle of a Nordic program? Let’s put it this way: I’ve been carrying CDs of the Brahms trios to audio shows for years. Every time I play the opening phrase of the Trio No. 1, Op. 8, I sense hearts opening all around me. Isn’t that reason enough, not only for Brahms’s presence, but also for your own at Close Encounters with Music’s annual Gala Concert? CEWM’s Gala Concert and Reception, Nordic Lights, begins in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on June 8 at 6 pm. —Jason Victor Serinus, Preview Massachusetts



The first notes from the CD under review made me think that I was listening to a previously unknown work of Charles Ives. Folk song, polytonality, “wrong” notes, exuberance all the hallmarks of Ives’s distinctive style are there. It is delightful from the get-go. By the second (“The Basket of Eggs”) of the Six British Folk Songs, I realized that Paul Schoenfield has his own distinctive style: Here the mood becomes much more introspective and meditative, even lyrical. It’s a gorgeous little piece. The variety of styles employed continues through the rest of this cycle and on throughout the CD. Florid passages of running notes, the occasional creeping in of jazz influences, rhythmic vitality, a sly quote here and there (my ears perked up in the fifth of the songs when I heard a snippet of the Shostakovich Fifth), and inventive accompanimental textures are all much in evidence in this music. My earlier description of “delightful” applies to all of the works—and their individual movements on the disc. 

A few words about Schoenfield would probably not be amiss for at least some readers: A native of Detroit, he studied piano with Ozan Marsh, Julius Chajes, and Rudolf Serkin (and believe me, Schoenfield is a terrific pianist!). He began writing music at age seven, essentially training himself to compose by listening to copious quantities of music, often with scores in hand. He cites Bartók and Ravel as having been particularly influential on his own music. Schoenfield later studied at Carnegie Mellon University, ultimately receiving his D.M. from the University of Arizona. He currently is on the faculty of the University of Michigan, and his wide-ranging interests include Talmudic studies and mathematics. 

The solo piano suite Pecadilloes draws inspiration for both its title and music from Rossini’s Sins of My Old Age. The titles of the movements (“Allemande,” “Fughetta,” “Rag,” “Waltz,” “Shuffle,” and “Boogie”) suggest both Baroque and modern jazz influence, and indeed these are to be heard in good measure here. The concluding “Boogie” has the flair of Nikolai Kapustin, but maintains a distinct American flavor. Pianist James Tocco suggests that it is a real killer to play, but he brings off the entire suite with panache and pizzazz aplenty. 

The opening movement, Toccata, of the concluding suite, Refractions, sounds to my ears like the music of Jean Françaix put through an American filter. It contains every ounce of joie de vivre that one would encounter in anything by the French master. The following March is quite a bit more astringent, but delightful in its own way. The Intermezzo again sheds light on Schoenfield’s gifts both as a melodist and a colorist (note the ghostly effect near the end of the movement), and the concluding wild Tarantella again conjures up the ghost of a slightly more polytonal Françaix. 

Given that I’ve already singled out for praise the piano playing of Schoenfield and Tocco on this recital, I must do the same for that of cellist Yehuda Hanani, whose articulation, phrasing, and use of portamento is as good as any cellist I’ve ever heard. He is clearly a major artist on his instrument. The spirited playing of clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein is likewise commendable. His approach to the music perfectly captures its essence, and he also very effectively uses portamento where it’s called for. 

It would be difficult for me to imagine any music lover not being utterly captivated and enchanted by this CD. This disc will be a strong contender for my next Want List, and will be listened to repeatedly in my home. I hope to hear much more of Schoenfield’s work as I have the opportunity (yes, this is a big hint to the editor, should he receive more CDs with this composer’s work on them, to send them my way.) Don’t delay in picking up your copy. David DeBoor Canfield 



Entering its ninth summer, the High Peaks Festival has switched peaks: After years in the Catskills, the educational program of Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) has taken up residence in the Berkshires.

From August 6 through 16, the halls of the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., will be filled with the sounds of some 50 earnest, aspiring chamber musicians — cellists, violinists, violists, and pianists – studying with 14 master professionals. Both students and faculty come from “every corner of the world,” said founder and artistic director Yehuda Hanani.

The Berkshire School became available with the departure this year of the Berkshire Choral Festival, and Hanani was eager to have the High Peaks Festival “closer to home,” specifically to tap into the audience and supporters of the Berkshire-based CEWM.

Each festival has a theme, and this year’s is “the cross-influence of French and Russian culture and art” in the 19th and 20th centuries. Especially in the early 20th, “Paris was filled with Russian exiles — Diaghilev (impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes), Prokofiev, Stravinsky and others.” At the same time, “French was the language of the Russian intelligentsia.”

The 11-day program will include a wide array of concerts, talks, and master classes that will all be open to the public. Nearly every evening will feature a moon-light sonata, a performance by the talented student musicians. At least two concerts will be performed by faculty, and there may be programs mixing faculty and students.

Hanani touted the “family atmosphere” of the festival. “We eat together, take walks, faculty and students living in close proximity.” And he invited visitors to “join us on any level they want.”

“People are interested in seeing what happens in the kitchen before you put a meal on,” comparing that to “how a musical work is put together. So master classes are very popular, and people are welcome to sit in.”

For Hanani, the greatest satisfaction is the international flavor. “I find it moving to see barriers disappearing between cultures, languages. Students sit together and make music. Nothing else matters. It goes beyond music, beyond borders or political disagreements. It’s a reminder of the power of music.”

“Someday,” he half-joked, “We may have the festival at the U.N.”


Great Barrington — The first concert of season 26 for Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) on October 21 was billed as an event of titanic significance. “Genre bending masterworks performed by an all-star cast.” “The pinnacle of chamber music.” If such language sounds to you like marketing hype, then what you are about to read will exceed your personal bounds of credulity (i.e., you won’t believe it). 

Chamber music has always been the locus of strange magic. Inexplicable voodoo. It’s always been that way, and most CEWM concertgoers are aware of how quickly a concert performance can go from ordinary to extraordinary when everything comes together in a perfect storm of musical alchemy. That’s what happened on October 21. CEWM patrons have also learned that sooner or later they’ll be blindsided by a performance so sublime it will defy explanation. This, too, occurred on October 21.

If all you want is a strictly rational account of what happened on the evening of October 21, then perhaps the following will suffice: “Five professional musicians delivered accurate renditions of two works by Schumann and Brahms.” But as anyone who witnessed those performance well knows, such an explanation fails to account for the open-mouthed, deer-in-the headlights expression so many patrons wore throughout the evening. 

Then what does account for it?

To begin with, the pieces on Saturday’s program happen to be two of the world’s all-time most popular chamber music works. Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 are monumental masterworks. As such, they have stood the test of time, and today, 175 years after Schumann published Op. 44, both quintets continue to hold their own against legions of worthy rivals. Generations of listeners – expert and novice – have found these works uniquely engaging, enthralling, unforgettable. That’s why it’s safe to say that if these quintets are not major pinnacles of chamber music, then Beethoven was a Saint Bernard, and Schubert is a frozen dessert. But performances of the two can hardly amount to perfect storms of musical alchemy every time a well intentioned ensemble attempts to master them. It requires extraordinarily advanced musicianship to deliver note-perfect performances of either piece, and only the most exceptionally capable musicians will ever go beyond that. 

And exceptional they were on this Saturday evening: Soyeon Kate Lee, piano; Irina Muresanu and Peter Zazofsky, violin; Michael Strauss, viola; Yehuda Hanani, cello. The group’s playing demonstrated remarkable unity: impossibly tight ensemble at the most critical moments, exquisitely nuanced dynamics, all articulations synchronized to highly improbable tolerances. It was stunning and unforgettable. But still not a perfect storm.

For any chamber music ensemble* to reach hurricane strength, every member of the group must not only demonstrate virtuosic technique. They must also possess vast reserves of mature enthusiasm. Informed spirit, if you will. This often makes the crucial difference between a perfunctory performance and an inspired one. And it was spirit that catapulted these quintet performances over the top.

A founding member of the Muir String Quartet and Professor of Violin at the Boston University School of Music, Peter Zazofsky knows something about spirit. He knows how to summon it, channel it, and model it to others. In other words, he knows how to incite excellence in other musicians and draw them into his grand conspiracy, his not-so-secret plot to create perfect storms of musical alchemy. That’s what he did on Saturday, October 21 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.