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Performing Bach with musicians who ‘reflect the diversity’ of Dorchester

Center: Shammua Peter, 15, Roger Curley, 13, and Shawn Eddy, 10, sing in the choir stalls during an Ashmont Hill Chamber Music rehearsal at All Saints Church in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“I used to keep this such a secret,” says Mary Beth Alger, the artistic director of Dorchester’s Ashmont Hill Chamber Music. “I’m increasingly honest, the older I get.”

Sitting at a table at the Parish of All Saints, the Episcopal church that provides a home for Ashmont Hill’s concerts, she tells her story. She’s loved classical music since she was a kid. But she grew up without money for music lessons, and her parents weren’t musically inclined.

Instead, her introduction to music came through promotional LPs from the local grocery store. They were full of excerpts from favorite classical chestnuts and showpieces; Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances,” Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” the overture to “Carmen.” And, she says, she wore those records out.


“It wasn’t in the cards for me to be a performer,” says Alger, a Dorchester resident who previously founded and directed the Chappaquiddick Summer Music Festival on Martha’s Vineyard. “At least I can be a presenter.”

The long-running Ashmont Hill series has been flourishing and expanding under Alger’s leadership. During founding director Rachel Goodwin’s 30-year tenure, the series primarily presented a resident ensemble. But Alger has adopted dual priorities of putting local musicians in the spotlight and bringing touring performers to the neighborhood. Its season kickoff concert on Sept. 22 balances the best of both those worlds. In the church’s ornate sanctuary, performers will include bass-baritone Dashon Burton, local baroque violinist Julia McKenzie, All Saints music director and organist Andrew Sheranian, and trebles from the All Saints Choir of Boys and Men, which is based at the church.

Sunday’s concert is part of the two-year-old Bach Project, a collaboration between Alger and Sheranian. A few years ago, the 1892 church underwent a complete restoration, Sheranian says in a phone interview, including the installation of a small 1928 E.M. Skinner organ built in Dorchester — perfect to accompany a chorus.


“I was looking around that building thinking. ‘Wow, this would be the perfect place to do Bach,’ ” Sheranian says. Rather than forming his own competing series, he says, he and Alger decided to experiment together. The first two concerts of the project sold out. Now, Alger says, they have two Bach concerts each year.

“I would love for All Saints Ashmont to be a new center for the exploration of Bach’s music. Not just the sacred music, not just the choral music that you can hear every Sunday at Emmanuel Church . . . but the complete spectrum of what Bach wrote,” Sheranian says.

Looking ahead in the season, Alger’s stamp is all over the programming. She’d like to mount at least one world music concert per year and new music is also a priority; over the past few seasons, the series has developed a relationship with the young Boston group Hub New Music.

Alger says that artistic excellence is the key factor in her booking for Ashmont Hill, but she deliberately seeks out performers of color because “we want our performers and our audience to reflect the diversity of our community,” and she’s noticed a larger black audience when black musicians perform. At Burton’s recital last season, she says, an older black man brought his two grandsons after seeing the bass-baritone’s picture in the Dorchester Reporter. “‘The man said . . . Look, this singer looks like us. We’re gonna go and hear him.’ ” The series has also partnered with Boston City Singers and Project STEP, and when they’ve done those concerts, says Alger, the seats fill with kids.


“This program is exactly what needs to be happening in every community in the country,” says Burton over the phone. “It is truly a training ground. Not only just how to be a musician, but how to be a supportive community member.” When he was in town for his recital last fall, Burton led a workshop for the boys in the chorus, many of whom are from the surrounding neighborhoods — no religious affiliation is required to join. Because the boys were of different voice parts and levels of experience, he says, he chose to focus the workshop on breathing so everyone could fully participate.

“It’s just part of the culture there. They don’t want people to just come in, do a performance, and then leave,” Burton says. “And through having musicians go into places like schools and churches with these kinds of programs: that is how we’re able to truly say we’re all welcome. To do whatever we can to just remove this boundary from the audience and the stage. So that our young friends can say, ‘That can be me someday.’ This is really one of my life’s goals.”

With the vast majority of the area’s classical music events taking place in the Symphony Hall/New England Conservatory area, with some smaller clusters near universities, Ashmont Hill is a distinct geographic outlier. And Alger says she wants to make concerts “as accessible as possible,” especially for the neighborhood’s historically underserved communities that might not otherwise think of attending a concert. Adult tickets are $25, students $18. EBT card holders can get in for $3. And, “if someone comes in and says, ‘I really want to hear the concert, but I don’t have the money,’ ” says Alger, they won’t be turned away from the concert and reception, where they can mingle with the musicians.


This inclusive approach to programming and audiences seems to be working. Since she came on board, Alger says the organization has more than tripled its budget thanks to new fund-raising initiatives and grants. But there’s no time to sit back, she says. “I never say ‘Oh, I can rest for a month because we’ve got . . .’ no. It’s constantly on your mind.”


All Saints Church. Sept. 22, 4 p.m. 617-827-7857,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.