VC INTERVIEW | Suzanne Davidson - Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Executive Director

This week, VC is hosting a 2-day online festival “Celebrating 50 Years of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center"

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This week, The Violin Channel sat down with Suzanne Davidson, Executive Director of the New York-based Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The virtual event will take over The Violin Channel's homepage, Facebook and Instagram pages on September 8th and 9th and will feature 8 full-length concerts, masterclasses, and lectures from the CMS archive.

 

Please tell us a little about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. When was it founded and what would you say is the Society’s core mission?

CMS was founded on September 11, 1969, and this Thursday September 10, when we premiere the new film Transcending – The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates 50 Years, is the final day of our 50th Anniversary Season.

CMS was created to be the chamber music constituent of Lincoln Center, to represent this great art form at the highest level of excellence, just as the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet were chosen to represent their art forms for Lincoln Center. Alice Tully was the first Chair of CMS, and she built Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall to be CMS’s home, where it is today.

 

Who have been some of your luminary members over the past 50 years?

In the earlier days, there was a small coterie of artist members, joined by visiting artists. The artist members in the first season were co-founder Charles Wadsworth, and Charles Treger, Walter Trampler, Leslie Parnas, Paula Robison, Leonard Arner, Gervase de Peyer, Loren Glickman, and Richard Goode.

Under the artistic leadership of David Finckel and Wu Han for the past 16 years, CMS has grown to a glittering international roster of approximately 130 luminary musicians each season, from 18 countries, all of whom are extraordinary chamber musicians and also renowned soloists as well. A number are also first chairs in major orchestras, such as Anthony McGill and Erin Keefe, and more than 30 of our artists are artistic directors for prestigious chamber music festivals, such as Daniel Hope, Inon Barnaton, Gloria Chien, Anne-Marie McDermott and former CMS Artistic Director David Shifrin.

 

What do you see as the role of chamber music in the 21st Century?

As in all periods in history, but particularly now when so much of our lives are spent alone online, human beings yearn for community around something that is deeply meaningful and inspirational to them. Chamber music fills that role. It has the unique ability to bring the power of great music and great artists to the most intimate settings where audiences connect with the music, the artists and each other.

Our home is Lincoln Center, but in an ordinary non-Covid year, CMS performs even more concerts on tour in North America and all over the world than we do in New York. Everywhere that we go, communities build up around CMS and chamber music. In places that we go for an extended residency once a year, our audiences tell us they look forward all year long to our visit, to being part of something so incredibly beautiful and to sharing it with others whom they’ve come to know as friends through chamber music.

 

Outside of the concert stage, CMS also puts together a number of education and leadership initiatives. How do these contribute to the Society’s mission?

On the professional level, CMS has long conducted the most important 3-year residency for a select group of the finest emerging chamber music artists, the Bowers Program. It’s crucial to the art form that the wisdom and artistry of the great senior musicians be passed on to the next generation. Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han also program virtually all of CMS’s concerts to create ensembles of senior and younger artists, because the energy and chemistry that result from combining the generations are essential ingredients both to developing young artists’ careers and to making CMS concerts so thrilling.

On the non-professional level, CMS is committed to enriching lives by making chamber music accessible to anyone anywhere. We take education programs to New York City schools, have extensive education programs for adults and families at Lincoln Center, and make our programs available online for free. These programs are particularly important in this pandemic period, because the knowledge which our audiences gain during this time will greatly deepen their concert experience when we’re back together in our halls again.

 

How have you adapted to the COVID pandemic?

We have been the beneficiaries of gifts from two incredible donors. The LG Corporation outfitted our Rose Studio with livestream equipment in 2011, and Gus and Rita Hauser have generously funded our media department and our videotaping every concert in Alice Tully Hall beginning in 2015. As a result, we have more than 1,100 performance and education videos that CMS has been able to mix and match and incorporate into a continuous series of online concerts beginning right away in mid-March when Lincoln Center was shut down. We’ve created new content to further enrich these concerts, with introductions from David and Wu Han, funny and moving artist profile videos, and explanatory artist comments and q and a’s. We’re about to announce an exciting fall season curated entirely for online presentation to our global audience.

But a crucial part of CMS adapting is our fo on supporting our musicians, without whom there is no chamber music. With concert halls closed, the musicians have lost much of their livelihood, and all of their concerts with CMS have had to be postponed to a future season. Postponed is the key word. CMS has committed to the artists and the audiences that the concerts which had been created for them will happen. For any of the concerts that didn’t happen last season or don’t this, CMS nevertheless will pay the musicians 50% fees now. Then, when the concerts happen, they will receive an additional 75% fee, for a total of 125% fees. We also are and will be creating new content in whatever form we can, and compensating the musicians for all of this new work.

Adapting to no earned revenue is a big challenge. We’re lucky to have our board and loyal patrons and audience whose generosity is helping to keep CMS strong, and we’re so grateful as every new donor joins us, who cares about CMS and our musicians and wants to make sure that

we can be here when our halls re-open and for the next 50 years, creating transcendent concerts for them and leading this art form forward.

 

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s 50th Anniversary celebration?

In a year filled with so many devastating events, we’re looking forward to taking this moment to celebrate that through it all, and throughout the last 50 years of challenges, CMS and this art form of chamber music have survived and flourished, and even now, as the title of our film says, we are transcending.

We’re also looking forward to thanking those who make it all possible. CMS went from a small start-up in 1969 to the leading global chamber music organization 50 years later because a lot of people were determined to devote the best of themselves to make it happen -- their time, energy, creativity, artistry and unstinting generosity – to open the doors to bring as many people as possible close to the greatness of the chamber music art form. And people in ever-growing numbers have become an essential part of CMS – our wonderful audience.

 

What does the future hold for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center?

I believe that CMS and our many communities will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever, and that from this more and more CMS communities will spring up.

During a crisis, what matters most becomes crystal clear. That kind of clarity will enable us to set our strategic priorities going forward, and pursue them with new tools that we’ve discovered. We will continue to focus on inclusion in bringing the joy of great chamber music to a wide audience, in person and online. Lincoln Center and our work there are at the core of our existence. We can’t wait to be back performing for our loyal audiences and for new audience whom we’re confident will be joining us in person, having met us first online during this period. We’re also committed to continue expanding our engagement with communities of color in every aspect of CMS.

We also can’t wait to be back among our communities around the world. We’ve been expanding our global engagement strategically in recent years, and even as we’re concentrating this year on reinventing ourselves for an exclusively online existence during the pandemic, we’re looking ahead and starting to plan to resume our many residencies and create new ones.

The strength of CMS, and the reason for our existence as we embark on the next 50 years, remain what they were from the start -- our music and the community of musicians and audiences to whom it means so much, and who make it thrive.