In all the Capital Region, what do I like best? Probably the chamber music series at Union College.
It’s an amazing thing to have in such an out-of-the-way place as Schenectady — a series of 14 or 15 concerts each year starring some of the most accomplished performers in the world of solo and small-group classical music, performers like Yefim Bronfman, Emanuel Ax and the Emerson String Quartet, as well as rising stars not yet widely celebrated.
It’s amazing not only because of the quality of the music but also because of the price. Admission is just $20 or $25 at the door, and if you buy a season ticket for $150, it works out to $10 per show — in a universe where $40 to $80 tickets are the norm. Sometimes an artist will play at Union College and then a few days later play the same program at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, where tickets run as much as $90, the Union College performance serving basically as a dress rehearsal.
What’s more, there’s open seating. Arrive early at the college’s Memorial Chapel and sit in the front row if you like.
If you love chamber music, it is the deal of all deals.
I think of this just now as the longtime director of the series, Dan Berkenblit, is stepping down. On the eve of his 82nd birthday, he says it’s “basically age” — that and the desire to provide for continuity.
He’s going to be replaced, if such a thing is possible, by Derek Delaney, a music manager who lives in New York City and serves full time as the executive director of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival in Long Island and by the way is the husband of cellist Sophie Shao. Like Berkenblit, he’ll do it without pay, just for the satisfaction of doing it. “It’s one of the most important series on the East Coast,” he told me, and also, “Because I have respect and admiration for Dan.”
The two met and bonded at the summer Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.
The younger Delaney has a long future ahead of him, I pray. He thinks running the program from afar should not be a problem, since all the arranging with artists is done by email and telephone anyway, and he is well plugged in with the chamber-music community. But he says he does plan to spend more time up here in the off-season: “My challenge is to get to know the community, to meet cultural leaders.”
This Saturday will be the final concert of the 2011-12 series (8 p.m., Musicians from Marlboro playing Haydn, Mendelsson and Shostakovich) and the last under Dan’s management. Next year, he said, we’ll see him maybe turning on the lights or handing out programs, a helper like other helpers.
The series employs no paid staff, which is one of the things that keeps ticket prices down, and Union College contributes the chapel and administrative support, which is another thing.
Even so, regulars understand that Dan not only runs the series without pay but makes up any shortfall out of his own pocket, which he does not talk about but which he did admit to me comes to something more than $10,000 (“low five figures”) a year. (He is a retired pathologist who lives in Niskayuna.)
He makes no effort at fundraising — I’ve been attending for about 10 years and have never gotten a fundraising appeal, and when he welcomes the audience at each concert he never says a word about needing money to keep the thing going.
He never introduces himself, either. He never says, “Good evening, my name is Dan Berkenblit, and I’m the director of this
concert series.” He doesn’t even put his name on the program. He loves the music and loves to make it happen, and that seems to be enough.
I have thought from time to time about doing a series of columns on people who make our area a better place to live without blowing their own horn — if I’m ever in a benign mood — and when I do, he will be high on the list.
I have had some memorable and even mesmerizing experiences at these concerts — listening to Yefim Bronfman play the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, Emmanuel Ax play the four Ballades of Chopin, the Boston Camerata sing and play a Christmas program that mixed Christian, Jewish and Arab traditions.
I know it’s not for everyone. The audience at these concerts tends heavily toward the geriatric, a demographic that I am slowly joining, and I worry sometimes that when we have all gone to the big concert hall in the sky there will be no one left to enjoy such music, but Delaney is not worried.
“People come to chamber music later in life,” he said. “They start with orchestral music and opera.”
When the current geezers are gone, new geezers will replace us.
This concert series started in 1969 as a collaboration between Union College and the Schenectady Museum, the committee that ran it fizzled out, the chairman stepped down in 1979, and Dan, who worked on it from the beginning, took it over at that point. So it’s been a long run for him, and what he has made of it is really amazing: one of the premier chamber music series on the East Coast.
Union College recognized him a couple of years ago with its Founders Medal, but the rest of the city seems little aware of him or his contribution.
Those of us whose lives have been enriched by the music he brings us love him and thank him and dearly hope his successor will be able to keep the magic coming.