Admit it: We’re deliciously spoiled living in a community immersed in culinary innovation gracing our tables complemented by world-class wine swirling in our glasses.
Add to that equation artistic excellence, thriving in our midst.
Thirty-six years strong, Chamber Music in Napa Valley, lovingly guided by co-directors John and Maggy Kongsgaard, has been serving up classical fare that invites local audiences to experience the world’s finest musicians in an intimate setting and at ticket prices that pale in comparison to similar series throughout the U.S.
The origins of chamber music can be traced to music composed for small groups of players (and instruments) that could fit easily into a palace chamber. It was often called “the music of friends,” with one performer per part, in contrast to orchestral music.
Nineteenth-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described the chamber string quartet as “four rational people conversing,” denoting the style of one instrument introducing melody and the other instruments “responding” with a similar motif. Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak were prolific composers in this genre.
Chamber Music in Napa Valley (CMNV) was founded in 1980 by local lawyer Dick Lemon, who represented French-owned Clos du Val winery. The winery wanted to express its gratitude to the welcoming Napa Valley and backed Lemon in his dream to start a classical chamber series.
Since 1995, the Kongsgaards have been judiciously curating, marketing, presenting and caretaking the annual music series that began with “good bones.” The nonprofit’s formula for sustainability and success — including seasons of sold-out concerts and an enviable arts education program — relies on a focused artistic vision and lean approach to operations.
As John commented, “One of the remarkable things about CMNV is that we are still here, our fundraising is entirely from our audience, and since we are a completely volunteer organization, we can run it just paying for the artist fees and venue.”
A recent bump on that “venue road” inspired a welcomed, positive outcome. As a result of the 2014 Napa earthquake, CMNV’s concert home, the First United Methodist Church, was forced to close for 15 months.
With support from the Gasser Foundation plus Barbara and Warren Winiarski, the Kongsgaards seized the opportunity to collaborate with the church and acclaimed, Chicago-based acoustician Larry Kirkegaard. Preserving the acoustic properties of the sanctuary was achieved by re-creating the oyster shell, lime plaster prevalent in historic European churches. An additional improvement was replacing the carpeted floor around the altar with oak. “Our goal,” stated Maggy, “was to keep it the same. We tried to put it back exactly how it was."
On the evening of Feb. 17, the Szymanowski String Quartet (with guest clarinetist Ivar Berix), inaugurated the newly enhanced, grand reopening of CMNV concerts in the church.
“We realized immediately that the acoustics had changed and were much better,” observed Grzegorz Kotow, one of two violinists in the quartet. “The new stage and added wooden elements respond very well with our instruments. For the audience, the sound is still very natural.”
“Most importantly for the ensemble, it makes it possible to hear the instruments as an ensemble, while at the same time hearing every detail in each separate voice. That gives us the possibility, while making our music to, at the same time, have a conversation with the audience on a very intimate level. For us this is the perfect acoustic for a string quartet.”
The next rainy morning, members of the quartet, who hail from the Ukraine and Poland, landed in the band room of Napa High School to participate in one of CMNV’s best kept secrets for the past 14 years – the Music for Students program.
Funded by a generous bequest from Belle and Barney Rhodes and managed enthusiastically by retired Calistoga High School humanities teacher Tom Abbey, the program has served hundreds of middle, high school and college students throughout Napa Valley.
“When the kids are no more than 15 or 20 feet from a quartet the interaction between player and listener is profound,” observed Abbey. “Every group who has played with the kids comments on the attention the kids pay to the music. I’ve talked with most of the classes before they hear the quartets and most of the quartets talk with the kids before and as they perform. Both the musicians and the audiences know what’s going to happen. The experience is the best kind of learning.”
CMNV will soon launch a visiting artists program geared to younger Napa Valley students, modeled after Santa Fe (New Mexico) Chamber Music Festival’s “Music in Our Schools” curriculum. “The idea,” John added, “is to not just bring these kids some familiarity with classical music. We want kids to come away from our program interested and comfortable with the idea of going to a classical music concert.”
Snagging a ticket to a CMNV concert can be challenging, due to the series’ track record, popularity and intimate space. “There are about 500 subscribers and two different subscription series to choose from,” explained Maggy, “and we always sell out before it starts.”
“We’re here to serve Napa Valley, and we don’t advertise in the Bay Area media. If somebody calls from outside, they have to be on a waiting list. We have a stable audience because we have new people coming in, new to town, or they discover what we are doing. Subscribers are encouraged to turn their tickets back so we can sell them at the last minute. We like to say that almost everybody can get in eventually.”
“We also have a well-educated audience who has been coming for a long time,” John said. “When international musicians come through Napa, they consider this to be one of the world’s best audiences — they are respectful and we value their judgment. A good audience is a really important part of a successful concert series. The audience becomes part of the performance when the performers understand how much they are being appreciated.”
“It’s wonderful to be back in the church,” beamed CMNV subscriber Rita Burris. “And I’ve never seen anyone in my life play Prokofiev sonatas as extraordinarily as Yefim Bronfman did last night (March 2). It’s an amazing benefit of living in the Napa Valley.”