Cellist Edward Arron, the man who decides what music gets played at Musical Masterworks, is a traditional kind of guy. So, as he prepares this season's lineup of chamber music concerts, he naturally wants to play contemporary music.
"Music of the 1990s is one of the themes for this season," says Arron from a hotel room in Korea, where he's chatting via Skype on his smart phone.
Playing new music with your friends is why chamber music exists. Back before you could switch on the radio or pop in a CD, a violinist and a cellist would stop by a pianist friend's place, and they'd play some trios. Composers like Mozart (who liked to play viola) and Schubert (the pianist) would get together with their friends to play their new scores, with spouses and guests the lucky recipients of these parlor concerts.
Through the heart of the 19th century, there was a piano in most parlors. Add a cellist or a violinist or two, and live music filled the chamber. Folks would rush to get the latest score for piano four-hand by Liszt or some bagatelles by Dvorák.
As Arron starts his fourth season as artistic director of the region's leading chamber music series, he has comfortably integrated new music and music often written by his friends into the 10-concert season. It's all very old-school.
"Modern music has gotten a bad rap," he says. "There was a lot of experimentation in the '50s, but that's behind us.
"We're so well positioned right now to enjoy 300 years of music," he adds.
Much of the music of the 1990s that Arron has programmed is, in its way, coming-of-age material for an evolving young artist.
He speaks of first hearing a broadcast of the Schnittke cello work programmed for this weekend and seeking it out, only to find it was unpublished. So in 1999, the Russian composer's publisher faxed Arron the manuscript, all but illegible in the agonized, post-stroke penmanship of the composer.
He speaks of working with composer Chen Yi to develop her quintet "Sound of the Five," a rare opportunity for a performer. "Each movement is based on an ancient Chinese instrument," he says, "and she, like Bartók, takes folk elements and makes them new."
And he speaks of the emotional power and stylistic continuum of the scheduled 1990s trios by composers as dissimilar as the young, New Hampshire native Pierre Jalbert and the venerable Estonian master Arvo Pärt.
Since taking over the helm of Musical Masterworks from its founder, Charles Wadsworth, Arron has re-affirmed its importance in the region. Much like Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Toshi Shimada, who assumed the New London orchestra's leadership the same year as Arron started programming here, Arron has a gift for blending in new music gracefully with the old. Arron is starting his 10th year as artistic director of the New York Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert chamber series, and his programming flair and personal charm moved "The New Yorker" to write, "Edward Arron is not only one of New York's most exciting young cellists, but also an inventive impresario."
The Masterworks concerts benefit from a devoted audience - the series has grown in its 21 seasons from four to 10 concerts - and the acoustic marvel of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, with its striking combination of sonic vividness and depth. The series also benefits from an air of conviviality - each concert has a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere - not only between the audience and the stage, but among the musicians themselves.
Time and again, when introducing his fellow musicians, Arron points out that he's known this violinist or that pianist since they were teenagers, when studying together at the Julliard School or at summer programs. Much like Haydn and Mozart, he's playing with his friends, but unlike them he's also performing with his wife, Jeewon Park, who will be the pianist in the opening programs. He frequently programs music written by the performers themselves, such as violist Kenji Bunch, pianist John Novacek or violinist Colin Jacobsen.
The Old Lyme concerts are part of a small tour first organized by Georgia-native Wadsworth, with two or more other performances of the same program. Sometimes the Old Lyme performances are at the start of the tour (two of the five start here this season), and sometimes it is at the end. As Arron explains it:
"I actually love the feeling of both ways: When we begin there, things are fresh, risks are taken, and spontaneous things happen. It is certainly exciting to explore the trajectory of a new program for the first time, and I think that excitement and freshness translates to the audience. On the other hand, it is always a great thing to bring a polished program to such an extraordinary venue."
"For me, it is meaningful to be able to spend 7 to 10 days with a grouping of musicians that is unique that week in time, and let a program and the chemistry between the players evolve."
Some of the most appealing and intriguing performances scheduled for this season include:
• Pianist Jeremy Denk's return for a fourth Masterworks appearance - Denk has made quite a name for himself as a probing thinker, writer and exemplar for interpreting craggy scores. His new CD of the all-but-unplayable etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti has kept the buzz going from his earlier Ives' Concord Sonata CD. At Masterworks, he has wowed the audience with music as diverse as Ives, Liszt and Mozart, but in February he will anchor the epic, emotionally fraught Schubert Piano Trio in E Flat.
• The fives and sixes of March - In the March concert, a talented ensemble that includes violinist Jennifer Frautschi will perform two of most welcome heart-of-the-repertoire works for a string quartet-plus: Mozart's String Quintet in D Major, K. 593, and Tchaikovsky's fabulously entertaining, set-ender string sextet "Souvenir de Florence."
• The musical arc of this weekend's program, from Bach to Schnittke to Martinu to the always-fresh Ravel Piano Trio - It's hard to imagine a concert that spans three centuries in a more conversational grouping, where each composer seems to speak to the next.
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter once said she strives to play a classic as if it's brand new and to play new music as if it's a classic. Arron has succeeded in leading his audiences to expect nothing less.