Youthful approach with Celebrity Series’ new Stave Sessions
In a significant addition to Boston’s music scene and a broadening of the offerings of the city’s chief importer of classical events, Celebrity Series of Boston has announced a weeklong new-music festival in March, focusing on performers and ensembles whose work crosses stylistic and genre boundaries.
The series, called Stave Sessions, will include six nights of performances in a cabaret-style setting at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, a Berklee College of Music building that opened last year. It allows Celebrity Series, founded in 1938, to put a greater emphasis on both presenting younger performers and attracting younger audiences.
“I’m very pleased we’re doing it — I won’t say finally, but this has been a couple of years in the thinking and making,” said Celebrity Series president Gary Dunning in an interview.
Stave Sessions opens on March 15 with Banda Magda, a band whose palette ranges over bossa nova and French pop, led by Berklee alum Magda Giannikou. Opening the show is Chorobop, formed by three Berklee students from Brazil. Gabriel Kahane, a singer-songwriter whose Los Angeles-based album, “The Ambassador,” was one of last year’s most acclaimed releases, performs on March 17, with singer and bassist Kate Davis opening.
The vocal octet Roomful of Teeth (March 18), cellist Ben Sollee and the Becca Stevens Band (March 19), the string quartet Brooklyn Rider (March 20), and Max Richter, a composer who uses electronics to refashion familiar classical works (March 21), will each play two sets per evening.
Room capacity in the configuration Celebrity Series plans to use is approximately 230, with 155 seats on the floor — both at tables and in rows — and 75 standing-room spots in the balcony. Drinks, including a specially curated “Stave Sessions Cocktail,” will be available from bars throughout the shows, and there will be a basic food menu as well.
According to Dunning, Stave Sessions is an outgrowth of a process of rethinking Celebrity Series programming that began when he assumed its presidency in 2011. He and programmer Amy Lam realized that the organization needed to “go deep” with its approach to performers, presenting them not only in mid-career and mature phases but earlier on in their artistic evolution.
The first result of this refocus was the Debut Series, which presents classical performers in the smaller confines of the Longy School of Music of Bard College’s Pickman Hall, “with the idea that they could go up the food chain” to larger venues, Dunning said. They thought the same approach could work with music that fused genres and fit comfortably into none of them.
“I think we’ve all seen over the last couple of decades how genres are blending and influences are becoming quite global,” Dunning said. “We wanted to present young artists, contemporary music in the broadest sense, mostly classically trained, who were exploring what music meant to them, what their influences are. And let’s have a series that presents these young artists who then might graduate up to Sanders Theatre or the Berklee Performance Center.”
The challenge was finding the right venue, as Dunning was convinced that the new series needed a setting other than the traditional one of “rows of seats lined up in a darkened hall.” Dunning said he contacted Roger Brown, the president of Berklee College of Music, shortly after 160 Massachusetts Avenue opened last January, and Brown was willing to have Celebrity Series use the space for the new concert series.
One wrinkle was that 160 Massachusetts Avenue is not principally a performance venue; it’s a multi-use building whose dining hall doubles as a concert hall. So the only time Celebrity Series could present a large number of concerts would be during Berklee’s spring recess. Dunning had been leaning toward making the new series a festival, rather than spacing out the performances over a season, and the venue availability sealed it. The final lineup reflects artists who had been on the radar, seasoned by the inevitable concessions to availability within a compact time frame.
“As we were putting this together, we would sometimes use artists’ names as we began to develop the idea of the festival itself,” Dunning said. “A group like Brooklyn Rider — they’re sort of the next-generation Kronos Quartet. Roomful of Teeth was the same way. I would say that most of these artists were on our whiteboard for close to a year.”
“I think it’s great that something like that is happening in Boston,” said Kahane, who has previously played at Cafe 939, Berklee’s student-run performing venue, in an interview. “I think that it’s perhaps been a challenge in the past for people who aren’t core classical celebrities. There’s been a sort of gap between that and, say, the club scene — playing at the Middle East, the Sinclair, those kind of rooms. So it’s a very welcome development to have a series in Boston that creates space for this burgeoning and increasingly visible community of artists who are making music at a very high level, but in a way that’s not about recitation of late Schubert sonatas or what have you.”
Dunning said the festival will require the organization to secure additional underwriting, which he estimated to be about $50,000 and which he is in the process of raising. In keeping with the spirit of the new series, rather than seeking out a single gift from a large corporation, they opted instead for what he called “our version of crowdsourcing.”
“We’ve basically gone to our current patrons and said, ‘This is something new, it’s good for us, we think it’s good for Boston. Would you consider giving an extra $1,000 this year?’” Dunning estimated that individual donations would range from $500 to $5,000. “And I’m confident we’ll put it together.
“For some of our patrons, these are not going to be familiar artists,” he went on. “But they get the concept of going deep, they know what we’re trying to accomplish and what it does for the cultural landscape here. Which is, I hope, to highlight the really fascinating stuff that’s going on with these young artists, and how they’re shaping what a concert experience is like.”