The Chamber Music Society at 50

The Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center will celebrate the opening of its 50th anniversary season in Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. The program will highlight Dvořák’s “American” Quintet (a work inspired by the plains of Spillville, Iowa), works by African-American composer Harry Burleigh, and iconic American composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Among the highlights of the anniversary year, a Live From Lincoln Center production will be broadcast on PBS September 6th: “Odyssey: The Chamber Music Society in Greece,” featuring CMS musicians at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, the center’s first-ever presentation of a U.S. musical organization. Then, an innovative exhibition, “CMS at 50,” opens on October 3rd at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

First introduced to chamber music by the saintly Father Ambrose Wolverton at Portsmouth Abbey—who gave up a promising concert career to enter the monastery and instead had to teach lunkheads like yours truly, and further encouraged by Professors William McClain and Elliott Galkin at Johns Hopkins—I subscribed to CMS in 1982 after getting my first raise at Macmillan, and it has been a continuing joy across the ensuing decades. Brilliant artists like violist Walter Trampler, cellist Fred Sherry, clarinetist David Shifrin, violin and violinists Ida and Ani Kavafian, flutists Paula Robison and Tara Helen O’Connor, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, and many more have thrilled audiences over the years.

One of Chamber Music Society’s annual performances of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.”

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), is one of 11 constituents of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. With its home in Alice Tully Hall, CMS is known for the extraordinary quality of its performances, and for setting the benchmark for chamber music worldwide. Founded by Corning Glass heiress and recitalist Alice Tully, composer William Schuman, lawyer and pianist Edward R. Wardwell, and the Society’s ebullient original artistic director, Charles Wadsworth, who also presided over the Spoleto Festival, CMS has long been the “Little Engine That Could” of Lincoln Center—small but superb, well managed financially, and setting the standard for chamber music globally.

Alice Tully was a multi-dimensional force of nature who studied in Paris for 16 years before commencing her recital career, learned to fly (“I told Mother it was perfectly safe so long as you had a decent plane”), joined the Civil Air Patrol, and during World War II became a Red Cross nurse’s aide. Upon her retirement from singing in 1958, she became a committed philanthropist and supported causes closest to her heart in medicine, education, wildlife preservation, and the arts—especially music.

An early artist roster of Chamber Music Society.

As Lincoln Center was being planned, her cousin Arthur Houghton assumed a leadership role with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and that, together with the recruitment of her friend Charlie Wadsworth to lead a chamber music constituent, inspired her to endow Alice Tully Hall as its home. She was its chairman of the board for 20 years and was a hands-on leader. As the hall was being designed, she brought her friend Edward Graeffe, who stood about six-foot-three, to the American Seating Company. The company did a mock-up of two rows and Alice told Edward to sit down, stretch out his legs and get as comfortable as he possibly could. The result, of course, was that there was a wide space between rows. “That’s what the distance will be,” Alice declared. “I want to be sure that absolutely everyone, when they are listening to great music, will be totally comfortable.” As Charles Wadsworth recalled on her 90th birthday, “Hence, it was the length of Edward’s legs, rather than the possibility of two or three hundred additional ticket sales, that determined the configuration in what is unquestionably the most commodious hall in the city.”

Richard O’Neill and Xavier Foley performing.

CMS’s first concert at Alice Tully Hall was presented on Alice’s birthday, September 11, 1969.

In later years, former CMS president Anne Coffin remembers Alice presiding over board meetings at her Hampshire House duplex, ringing a bell briskly to bring the meeting to order, and soon thereafter falling asleep. At the memorial concert that followed her death, Bronx-born tenor Bobby White brought down the house when he said, “Alice was proud of many things, but there was nothing she was prouder of than being Irish,” before launching into a deeply moving rendition of “Danny Boy,” delivered as if he were singing just to her.

In 2000, as a millennial gift to the city, the Society presented the entire Beethoven String Quartet cycle free of charge, and then-cultural affairs commissioner Schuyler Chapin proclaimed an official Chamber Music Society Week.

In the early 2000s, CMS weathered a two-year “Babylonian Captivity” at the Ethical Culture Society auditorium while Alice Tully Hall underwent a complete renovation, and the triumphant result has made for an even more commodious hall with greatly enhanced lighting and acoustics.

Alice Tully with Mark Schubart in 1974.

Along with Eddie Wardwell and Anne Coffin, CMS’s board has been led by such generous and conscientious stewards like Donaldson Pillsbury, Peter Frelinghuysen, James O’Shaughnessy, and now the lovely Elinor Hoover.

Today, under the gifted leadership of co-artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han, and executive director Suzanne Davidson, CMS presents a wide variety of concerts and educational events for listeners of all ages, in New York and internationally, and is set to pave the path of the chamber music future around the world for many decades to come. But reading about it is no substitute for the magic of being in Alice Tully Hall and hearing CMS’s marvelous musicians in person, so come to Alice Tully Hall on October 15th or any other concert date in this glittering anniversary year!