It all began with the stunning acoustics in a white, wood-frame church in Charlemont, MA, where organist (and famed choral composer and conductor) Alice Parker Pyle enlisted violinist Arnold Black to play a Handel sonata during a summer Sunday service. He and his wife Ruth, a pianist, marveled at the warm, live acoustics and wondered, what about playing chamber music here?
It was 1969, and the Black family were vacationing at Singing Brook Farm in the hill town of Hawley, where the Parker family hosted summer guests, many of them New York musicians. Encouraged by Alice, that winter Arnie wrote the minister of the church, Hank Bartlett, a lanky retired Army chaplain and a music lover.
In 1970, there was no chamber music venue in these hill towns or in the Pioneer Valley. Bartlett was enthusiastic and ran interference with the church trustees. He reported that they “were not unsympathetic” to the idea of concerts in the church, if they were not quite sympathetic yet either.
So, in the summer of 1970, in the village of Charlemont, which straddled the scenic Deerfield River, and opposite a harpsichord shop, Mohawk Trail Concerts was launched. That first program included Motetta Sacra by Giovanni Batista Colonna, Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Major, Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, and Schubert’s great Quintet in C Major. Performers included Thomas Pyle, baritone; Alice Pyle, harpsichord; Arnie Black and Yoko Matsuda, violin; Jacob Glick, viola; Paul Olevsky and Charles Forbes, cello.
From the beginning, the concerts were a community project. The owner of the local general store, Henry Avery, whose son Dennis studied flute at Oberlin, was on the Board. Villagers helped park cars, provided punch and cookies for intermission and put up musicians, who played for little or no money. They loved the acoustics, which allowed a pianissimo audible in the balcony, and found the informality and contact with the audience “exhilarating.”
The founding musicians declared the concerts “should be informal and informative,” accessible to the community in style, content and cost. They would encourage new composition and play “music old and new,” performed by musicians “near and far.” “We wanted no taint of elitism,” Black would recall. At post-concert receptions locals chatted with musicians in chinos and t-shirts.
The concerts were spiced with levity, often provided by the puckish Black, whose commentary on the music and composers became a draw in itself. At the first concert, the musicians proudly introduced a Strad and a Guarnerius violin, a Strad and a Montagnana cello, after which Glick held up his viola and proudly announced, “Montgomery Ward” to a roar of applause.
Lack of air conditioning on humid summer nights in the church left audiences not just sweaty, but literally stuck to the varnished pews. On standing for intermission, perhaps painfully, one left behind either a layer of skin or a fabric impression. After benefits in New York raised the funds for air conditioning, musicians and audiences alike applauded. The pews were refinished.
Soprano Jan de Gaetani sang twice in Charlemont that first season, and she would remain a beloved performer there for years until her untimely death.
In 1974, at a Nonesuch Record party in New York City, Black heard Bill Bolcolm playing rags and Gershwin on a piano. Would he come up to play for MTC? Bolcolm brought along his then girlfriend, soprano Joan Morris, and they performed popular songs of the Victorian era such as “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Boston Globe critic Michael Steinberg happened to be in the audience and wrote the first critical rave about the duo, who returned as married Bolcolm and Morris, performing cabaret music and American musical theater pieces with their own brand of wit and brilliance for decades.
Arnold Black’s wide range of musical associations, not to mention his personal warmth, allowed him to draw to the “acoustically astonishing church” in a welcoming hill-town landscape performers of stunning accomplishment: Arnold Steinhardt, Carol Wincenc, Joel Krosnick, Gil Kalish, Robert and Nicholas Mann. Robert Bonfiglio astonished audiences with his bravura performance of Mozart, among others, on a harmonica.
In 1989, the youthful Leningrad Quartet called from a Moscow airport days in advance of their scheduled MTC concert: the crumbling Soviet state would not let their instruments out of the Soviet Union. Penniless and with few clothes, they performed on borrowed instruments to a standing ovation, and returned later as the now-renowned St. Petersburg Quartet.
As much as the accomplished performing artists, the creative programming has drawn audiences over the years. Some recall an all-Telemann program billed as a “Telemannathon.” Others, evenings of opera arias emceed by the ebullient Kevin Rhodes, music director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. MTC celebrated local poets Archibald MacLeish and Richard Wilbur, who read their poems set to music composed by Ezra Laderman and Arnold Black respectively.
When Arnold Black died in 2000, Ruth Black stepped in as Artistic Director, a role easily assumed by one who had been intimately involved from the beginning in every aspect of Mohawk Trail Concerts’ operation. Her lilting English accent replaced Arnie’s quips introducing the concerts. As a thank you to the town and people of Charlemont, she added to the summer calendar a free jazz concert on the banks of the Deerfield River.
The 2014 season ended with the retirement of the beloved Ruth Black. The following year her hand-picked successor, cellist Mark Fraser, took the reins of Mohawk Trail Concerts. A founding member of the Adaskin String Trio, Mark has managed in his initial seasons to retain the concerts' high quality and eclectic blend of music while adding new notes of his own to the ongoing song that is Mohawk Trail Concerts.
Belden Merims 2014