Bringing the action up close and personal

Anna Maria Mancini of Swampscott and Anthony Nicastro of Gloucester  take a turn on the dance floor during the weekly Latin dance party at Rockafellas in Salem.Greg Coles leading Grace Polcaro at Rockafellas in Salem.
John Blanding/Globe Staff
Anna Maria Mancini of Swampscott and Anthony Nicastro of Gloucester take a turn on the dance floor during the weekly Latin dance party at Rockafellas in Salem.Greg Coles leading Grace Polcaro at Rockafellas in Salem.

A Gothic chapel; a historic library; a sanctuary on the grounds of a rural cemetery; an 1850s carriage house.

Most of the time they sit as they have for centuries, silent and stately, relatively unchanging as the hurlyburly world goes on around them.

But occasionally these spaces bring forth the bold and rich tones of chamber music — cello, viola, violin, piano, fiddle, clarinet, harmonizing voices. Each one is periodically transformed into an intimate performance space for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival.


“We love being able to use these smaller spaces,” said executive director Jane Niebling. “There’s no stage separating the musician from the audience. If you’re presenting chamber music, the closer you can get people to the action, the more exciting and engaging an experience it’s going to be for them.”

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There’s of course something to be enjoyed in traditional performance halls with their grand, gilded architecture and plush seating, but all across the region — from Marlborough to Quincy to Newburyport — you’ll find classical plays, elegant music, and sumptuous dancing in pleasantly unexpected places.

A few local options include the New Moon Coffeehouse, which regularly offers a variety of artists and styles at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill; the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library, which hosts occasional concerts; and the Theater in the Open at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport, which uses the setting of the natural world for its productions.

Rockafellas restaurant in Salem even puts on a Latin dance party, taught by Greg Coles, every Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival rotates its spring and summer concerts between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, founded in 1711 (as well as a “stunning” Gothic chapel in its churchyard, according to Niebling); the 1835 Custom House Maritime Museum; the Newburyport Public Library, built in 1777; and the privately owned 1850 Farwell Clay Carriage House. This summer, it will also celebrate the grand opening of a “perfect little restored Greek temple” at Oak Hill Cemetery. The group also does outdoor concerts and open rehearsals in various spots throughout the city.


“That’s part of what we do, is put music into different spaces,” said Niebling. “Newburyport is all about architecture. There really aren’t any spaces that aren’t interesting, and that don’t have a personality. By moving around, we keep reintroducing people to these personalities, and try to make them as active as possible.”

To the south, another venue is bringing life to its community in a different way.

In Middleborough, a 100-plus-year-old space was recently transformed to The Alley Theatre, an extension of the adjacent Burt Wood School of Performing Arts. It derives its name from its history and its location: It was a bowling alley 103 years ago, according to owner Lorna Brunelle, and accessing it requires a walk down a chicly lit metropolitan alley.

Since opening in 2010, it’s hosted an amalgam of events, including its own theater shows and those of the local Theatre One Productions and Nemasket River Productions, as well as movie screenings and standup from Lenny Clarke and Steve Sweeney. Other events have included art shows, artist and wellness fairs, author signings, lectures, charity fund-raisers, pageants, dance lessons, magic, private and political functions, and even a “living zoo” during school vacation.

“It’s a little quaint space in Middleborough — until you walk in you don’t realize how cool a space it is, or the high-end acts we pull in,” said Brunelle. “We’re all in it together. We’re trying to keep theater alive, trying to keep entertainment alive.”


That’s a mission shared by its western neighbor, Marlborough-based Ghost Light Players. The community theater group — which derives its name from the practice of leaving one light on in the theater when it’s “dark,” either for safety reasons or to appease its resident ghosts — strives to offer high-quality yet inexpensive theater for locals.

Now in its third season, it will present “Godspell” in May; past productions have included “Almost, Maine,” “The House of Blue Leaves,” and “Much Ado about Nothing.”

The latter included a ballroom scene of vignettes, with the audience incorporated.

“That’s an advantage of being a community theater,” said executive director Cliff Dike of Methuen. “You can take some artistic license, take some chances, to enjoy it more.”

Most shows are put on at First Church of Marlborough, but due to its growing popularity, the group is starting to look for a larger venue, Dike said.

“Live theater is one of the great art forms; it’s so unique,” he said. “We want to share that love with the community.”

Meanwhile, if you were to walk into the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy at this very moment, you would undoubtedly be struck by its magnificent floor-to-ceiling woodwork, graceful lighting, and stained-glass windows.

But at certain other times, it’s filled with the tones of cellos, guitars, flutes, drums, and harmonizing voices. For nearly 20 years the building, dating to 1882 and designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, has hosted concerts of every flavor, from classical, to jazz, to folk — even pop favorites.

But why music at the library (where we’re used to being shushed)?

It fits with its main priorities, according to assistant director and events coordinator Clayton Cheever, some of which include providing “engaging and enjoyable cultural and recreational experiences.”

Also, “if we can attract somebody to the library to hear music, then they can discover everything else we have to offer,” said Cheever.

Drawing in anywhere from 80 to 120 people, the library offers a July Thursday night concert series on the lawn and indoor concerts in the winter and spring on Sunday afternoons. Performers have included cellist Luis Leguia, guitarist-flute duo Mark Leighton and Peter Bloom, and a Beatles cover band. An open mike group also meets there regularly.

“We are really gifted to live in a region that has so much high-caliber talent,” said Cheever. “Finding ways that it can be appreciated and made available to folks that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to it is a rewarding experience.”

Those are sentiments wholeheartedly shared by Niebling.

Of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival’s various performance spots, she said, “I’m thrilled that these spaces are available, because it means we can avoid a conventional hall.

It’s important to us to bring high-end chamber music to Newburyport, and to make it as accessible and as intimate as possible.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at