North Country Chamber Players Background
In 1978, a group of ten musicians holding principal positions with such prestigious ensembles as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, New York City Ballet and Opera Orchestras, and New York’s Speculum Musicae partnered with the Franconia Chamber of Commerce to form one of the first rural community-sponsored chamber ensembles in America. Now in their 42nd season, the North Country Chamber Players, through their unwavering commitment to the communities of northern New Hampshire, have successfully built an audience for classical music in the region.
During the past four decades, the Chamber Players have designed and presented concerts, multi-media presentations, lectures, seminars, and informances of the highest artistic and intellectual standards. Following the only Boston performance in their history, at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2013, the group was described by the critic from the Boston Musical Intelligencer as, “a sophisticated group of experienced, passionate, focused, and obviously talented musicians. They performed with verve and precision. Their confident and uplifting performance precipitated an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation. Certainly, a treat when they venture forth from their idyllic rural home to share some of their high-caliber music-making with us city slickers!”
Always seeking to provide a wide range of programming and ideas to engage, inspire and inform the communities they serve, the Chamber Players have introduced internationally renowned figures like jazz great Branford Marsalis, tango master Pablo Ziegler, conductor, author and educator, Leon Botstein, and architect and visionary, Paolo Soleri, to northern New Hampshire audiences, for the first time, in collaborative performances and special presentations.
With a goal of continually expanding and adding richness to their local community-building efforts, the Players have frequently partnered with New Hampshire and local regional artists and groups like the Starbird Puppet Theater (Tamworth), the Weathervane Theater (Whitefield), the Papermill Playhouse (Lincoln), Bread and Puppet Theater (Glover, VT), the Frost Place (Franconia), Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (Bethlehem), the Jefferson Chorus, the Summerfare Chorus (Jefferson), and Ballet New England (Wayland, MA), often successfully demonstrating the powerful connections between diverse art forms and artistic communities.
Serving as a national model for resident ensembles, the Chamber Players have presented more than 1,200 education and outreach programs in New Hampshire public and private schools (from elementary, middle and high schools in Stark, Berlin, Jefferson, Groveton, Gorham and Stratford, et al, to the campus’ of Dartmouth and Keene State Colleges), at town halls, meeting houses, opera houses, radio stations, movie theaters, restaurants, libraries, factory floors, supermarkets, community centers, senior facilities, hospitals, rehab centers, churches, synagogues, ski lodges, grand resorts and summer camps, among others.
In recognition of their groundbreaking Rural Arts Program, which, in partnership with the NH State Council on the Arts, provided interactive in-school programs for more than 80,000 New Hampshire students, the Chamber Players were invited to present a showcase performance, in 1988, about their Rural Arts Initiative programs, on the floor of the New Hampshire State Legislature where they received a standing ovation from more than 300 state lawmakers who voted, the next day, to continue funding the program.
Virtually all North Country Chamber Players’ activities have an educational component.
On nearly every concert the performing musicians present oral program notes, providing insight into the history, structure, and often, personal meaning or connection of almost every piece performed. In recent seasons, thanks in part to the support of an endowment, the Fritz and Eleanor Kramer Fund, the Players have presented many pre-concert companion lectures, as well. The Players have averaged more than 10 such presentations in each of the past four seasons.
As a result of the North Country Chamber Player members’ extensive performing and teaching careers, as individuals, and collectively, they have access to some of the world’s finest performers, composers, and emerging young talent. While artistic excellence is the primary measure for the selection of musicians, it is the willingness, skill sets, and comfort levels of these artists to participate in all of the Chamber Players’ activities, especially outreach, that most often guide the selection process.
As an example, last spring the Chamber Players featured the internationally renowned tango pianist, composer, and 2018 Grammy Award winner Pablo Ziegler at their sold-out fundraising gala concert dinner, held at the Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield. The day before, Mr. Ziegler also joined the North Country Chamber Players at the Littleton Opera House for their annual Explorers Concert, a free program specifically designed to provide access to young children, disabled or elderly persons, or anyone who might have difficulty with the cost or decorum of a traditional concert situation.
Metropolitan Opera soprano Sara Heaton played a similar role in last year’s Gala and Explorers programs, celebrating the Golden Age of Cabaret in Paris, Berlin, and New York. In another example, two seasons ago, the virtuoso Portuguese guitarist and recording artist Pedro Joia traveled from Lisbon to join the Chamber Players for two White Mountains Music Festival programs. Prior to those concerts, Mr. Joia performed in free programs at the Copper Cannon Camp for underprivileged New Hampshire children, several local libraries, and in the pre-concert Kramer Lecture Series.
During the Fall of 2017 and the Winter, Spring and Summer of 2018, the North Country Chamber Players provided a series of 60 events and opportunities for residents of Coos and Grafton Counties, as part of their 40th Anniversary Celebration, designed to reinforce and fulfill a Chamber Players’ mission-based theme, Community Building through Music. One of the highlights was a Wind Residency program that took place at middle and high schools in Groveton, Gorham, Berlin, Littleton, and Bethlehem.
Following a period of consultation and planning with band directors, teachers, and administrators, in April 2018, five instrumentalists from the North Country Chamber Players, including flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, provided comprehensive instruction for band members and interactive performances for non-music students.
Working with established band programs, the Players joined students in their daily scheduled rehearsals, sitting side-by-side in their instrumental sections, to providing them with a close-up, first-hand experience of how a professional musician prepares, plays and adapts in group situations.
In addition to the side-by-side rehearsals, the Chamber Players also led sectional exercises, provided individual coaching, and participated in active discussions about practice and performance techniques and career experience, opportunities, and choices.
As follow-ups to these activities, students were also able to participate in the free summer lessons program and were given the opportunity to apply for paid internships to gain “front of house” experience at Chamber Players events in Whitefield, Lancaster, Gorham, and Bethlehem. At the request of the band directors, follow-up Wind Residencies were presented in October 2018 and April and December 2019.
A fourth residency, scheduled for April 2020, had to be postponed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as was the Chamber Players’ Spring Gala Concert. While students are invited to attend all Chamber Players events, which are always free to anyone under the age of 18, a determined effort was made to encourage students to bring their parents and siblings to the special family program that opened the North Country Chamber Players’ 40th annual White Mountain Music Festival.
In July 2018, the North Country Chamber Players presented the largest concert in their history at the Medallion Opera House in Gorham. This free program, thanks in part to support from the Tillotson Fund, included a group of 23 musicians comprised of Chamber Players and “alumni” performers, and featured Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, as narrators in Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
This historic event, which also included works by Tchaikovsky and Francaix, marked the first appearance by the Chamber Players at the Medallion Opera House, was the first professional chamber orchestra concert ever held at that venue and was attended by a standing-room-only crowd. In July 2019, the Chamber Players returned for a second sold-out appearance in Gorham, this time with jazz legend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. In both seasons, the programs were repeated for SRO audiences the following afternoon in Bethlehem, NH.
In addition to these events, the Chamber Players presented 10 additional festival concerts, each summer, at the Sugar Hill Meeting House and Mountain View Grand Resort. The Players present an average of 25 outreach programs during their summer festivals, designed to connect music to peoples’ everyday lives, at non-traditional venues like the Copper Cannon Camp, Littleton Co-op, Woodsville Guaranty Bank, the Profile Club, the Lancaster Town Hall and libraries in Sugar Hill, Franconia, Bethlehem, Berlin, Littleton, and Gorham.
In 2018, a special 40th Anniversary exhibit of photos, letters, newspaper articles, posters and programs that documented the artistic evolution and community involvement of the Chamber Players, their supporters, and audience members, was housed for 10 weeks at the Sugar Hill Museum and a similar mobile exhibit was displayed at venues throughout Grafton and Coos Counties.
In addition to the Chamber Players’ return to Gorham’s Medallion Opera House, with Branford Marsalis, in a program dedicated to the ‘Age of George Gershwin’, the 2019 summer festival also included a concert featuring compositions by ‘American Dreamers,’ from the graceful romance of Samuel Barber to the down-home bluegrass of Mark O’Connor; an exploration of music by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn; a program of virtuoso concertos by J.S. Bach; and a musical glimpse into pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia.
In 2020, in spite of the global pandemic, the Chamber Players will present a shortened summer festival featuring 6 free afternoon outdoor concerts at the Dow Pavilion in Franconia. The programs will include a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, a concert of ‘Baroque Masterpieces’ by Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and Albinoni, and ‘Tango Argentino’, a tribute to new and old tango masters with the greatest living tango master, Pablo Ziegler.
Due to geographic location and economic realities, the adult residents and especially the students of Coos and Grafton Counties often have had limited access to live classical music concerts, and minimal opportunities to meet or interact with world-class professional musicians.
Over the past five seasons, the NCCP has made a concerted effort to expand the breadth of their activities in Coos County, as a complement to, and extension of on-going activities in Grafton County. This has included a major increase in their appearances at the Mountain View Grand Resort and first-time performances in Colebrook, at the Tillotson Center, and at Gorham’s Medallion Opera House.
Since 1981, the Chamber Players have presented hundreds of in-school concerts through their rural arts program and have offered free lessons and career counseling to area music students through their summer tutorials program, but changes in the local economy, new educational standards and additional stresses on students, teachers, administrators, and class schedules made it increasingly difficult to find times for in-school programs and to identify students who could benefit from summer lessons.
After consultation with Andrew Tobin of Groveton High School and other teachers and administrators in the region, the Chamber Players launched their new interactive Band Residency Program with coaching and in-school performances at White Mountain Regional, Groveton, Gorham, Berlin, Littleton and Profile (Bethlehem) High Schools. The organization’s institutional investment, to develop the marketing, planning, fundraising, and networking capacities necessary for the successful execution of all of these initiatives, was enhanced by a grant from the Tillotson Fund.
Also critical to these efforts, outside the schools, was the support received from many community members including Denise Valley, Town of Gorham Director of Finance and other members of the Medallion Opera House Committee including Tim Sappington, Ed Gibson, and Jean Scalere, General Manager Ed King and Melissa Bridges, Member Services and Outreach Coordinator of the Littleton Food Co-op, Janine Carver, Marketing Officer of the Woodsville Guaranty Bank, Megan Carr, Director of the Littleton Public Library, Ann Steuernagel, Director of the Abbie Greenleaf Public Library (Franconia), Ronnie Zajac, Youth Services Librarian of the Weeks Memorial Library (Lancaster), as well as staff members from the Sugar Hill Museum, the Mountain View Grand Resort, the Bethlehem Public Library, and the Littleton Museum.
Four seasons ago, Program Director, Donald Palma and Artistic Director, Ronnie Bauch led a concerted effort to revitalize the group’s artistic programming which led, since then, to a 130% increase in ticket sales. Also contributing to the attendance boost was the concurrent upgrade of digital marketing strategies which included a new web site, social media postings, and on-line ticket sales.
Even though the Medallion Opera House presentation was a free concert, all the ticket reservations were handled on-line which allowed control of the crowd size (so no one had to be turned away), and also captured every audience member’s contact information, so they might be informed of future performances, like the one this coming summer. It was estimated that of the 220 attendees, upwards of 50% were attending a live classical music concert for the first time.
Some of the most striking evidence of the Chamber Players community impact is found in the anecdotal stories of individuals, especially young people, whose lives have been changed in some way by their interactions with the group. One such account is that of Joseph Hanslik, who grew up in Sugar Hill and began attending Chamber Players concerts at the age of 9. Joseph took piano lessons from Chamber Player Bernard Rose, for several years, as part of the North Country Chamber Players’ free summer tutorials program. He was also a winner of the Chamber Player’s Mentoring Award, in 2007, which provided him with a chaperoned visit to New York City where he attended rehearsals and concerts of some of the world’s greatest musicians and ensembles.
After graduating from Ohio State University, where he studied piano and composition, Joseph returned to Sugar Hill and contacted Artistic Director, Ronnie Bauch. He told Mr. Bauch that he had written a string quartet, was planning to attend graduate school in musical composition, and needed a recording of the work to submit with his application. The Chamber Players not only recorded the movement of the work, ‘Rondo’, for him but performed it on their Explorer’s Concert at the Boys and Girls Club in Littleton.
A few summers ago, the 9-year-old daughter of an employee of the Profile Club, who had insisted on taking up the violin following a similar Chamber Player program at the club the summer before, proudly performed Twinkle, Twinkle, in tune, with string quartet accompaniment, to the delight of Amara’s Mom and everyone else in attendance. Finally, in the fall of 2018, the ensemble received a note from the band director at Profile High School, one of the new Wind Residency participants, who wrote, “I just wanted to say thank you for the outreach work that you and the North Country Chamber players do for the students in our area. I have a horn student who took lessons with Bernhard [Scully] over the summer. She just made it into the New Hampshire All-State Band and will also be playing in the mixed brass choir at the Chamber Music Festival, which is made of the top scorers on each instrument. Your lesson program helped her earn her spot in these groups and take her skills to the next level.”