Museums Special

When art museums double as concert halls

Performances reflect lively mix of institutions’ aesthetics, legacies

The Claremont Trio is set to play Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new concert hall in January.
The Claremont Trio is set to play Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new concert hall in January.

As impressive as the Music Room was, in the end, “Mrs. Jack’’ simply needed more space to hang pictures.

Isabella Stewart Gardner loved music - she cultivated musicians, she was a fixture in her balcony seat at Boston Symphony concerts, and she made no fewer than five pilgrimages to Bayreuth, the Mecca of Wagnerian opera. And, after Jack Gardner’s death, constructing her Fenway Court palazzo, she included a clean, white-plastered, two-story Music Room.

The Boston Evening Transcript’s critic, William Foster Apthorp, wrote that there was no space “at once more inspiring and more restful.’’ It was where members of the BSO performed on the 1903 evening Gardner dramatically threw open the doors to her new museum. It was where Gardner put on concerts both public and private, even printing up tickets for the latter, forcing her guests to actually listen to the music before dinner and conversation.

Senegalese star Baaba Maal will perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Oct. 23.

But the artworks kept coming, and the room was eventually converted into two floors of galleries; performances were moved to the Tapestry Room, where they stayed for nearly a century. As of next January, however, the Tapestry Room will be turned back over to tapestries. The Gardner Museum’s new, Renzo Piano-designed building includes Calderwood Hall, a 300-seat home for the museum’s venerable chamber music program, which now includes both a jazz series as well as periodic, modern-minded “Avant-Gardner’’ concerts.

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The new hall is the biggest highlight of the increasingly busy museum-concert season in Boston.

Music has graced galleries throughout history, of course, but especially since the musical avant-garde made common cause with similarly cutting-edge painters in bypassing the censure of traditional venues. (An echo of that cooperation can still be sensed in Boston’s New Gallery Concert Series, a consistently interesting new-music forum curated by pianist Sarah Bob.)

But music in museums was, at first, a better fit for Mrs. Gardner’s eccentricity than Boston’s customary decorum. Take the Museum of Fine Arts: The December 1909 issue of the MFA’s “Bulletin,’’ celebrating the opening of its Huntington Avenue home, included mention of the new building’s “central concourse where music can be well heard and it is hoped will be heard.’’ But a decade later, director Arthur Fairbanks was still emphasizing that “music was not in the strictest sense part of the Museum’s proper activity,’’ though also admitting that concerts “forwarded the fundamental purpose of the Museum in that they brought the institution and its exhibits to the favorable attention of thousands of people.’’

It was the MFA’s extensive collection of musical instruments that prompted the museum to sponsor more concerts; eventually, the museum would spawn both the Boston Camerata and the Boston Museum Trio. Nowadays, the trio’s annual series has been supplemented by a potpourri of classical, jazz, and pop.


Popular music in its more experimental forms has been the foundation of concerts at the Institute for Contemporary Art since the ICA moved to its Fan Pier location in 2006. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater - bright, updated, with its dramatic harbor-view backdrop - has proven a versatile space for all kinds of music.

The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music, produced in 2008 under the auspices of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, put the acoustic through a number of paces, amplified and unamplified. But the bulk of the programming has been turned over to World Music/CRASHarts and its globetrotting-jukebox aesthetic. (Serious contemporary music still puts in appearances: In February, local group Sound Icon will perform with the Boston premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s stunning “in vain.’’)

Museum concerts, it seems, do end up reflecting their museums: The MFA added jazz and pop under the populist directorship of Malcolm Rogers; the Gardner’s series of “Avant-Gardner’’ concerts are part of the commitment to the contemporary that fueled its new addition. And much like the institutions that present them, all museum concerts are some mix of the educational, the curatorial, and the entrepreneurial.

The Tapestry Room was, truth be told, not a great space for music: low-ceilinged and dark, its namesake embroideries vacuumed up reverberation. But to be surrounded by its exquisite bric-a-brac - the miscellany of furniture, the medieval iron pulpit bolted to the wall, Pedro García de Benabarre’s 15th-century “Archangel Michael’’ casting judgmental gaze over performers and audience - was to be, once again, Mrs. Jack’s gate-crashing guest.

The agglomeration of treasures and curiosities alike was a reminder that museums, in their own way, democratize artifacts and experiences once reserved only for the wealthy. The art historian David Carrier somewhat pointedly noted that, when visiting the Gardner Museum, “you too can momentarily have the illusion of becoming a friend of Mrs. Gardner.’’ Be forewarned: Mrs. Gardner made her friends stay until the end of the concert.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at