This is excerpted from the commemorative concert program celebrating the 50thAnniversary of the Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem. On November 18, 2001, the Wister Quartet performed the exact same program that was performed by the Curtis String Quartet on November 29, 1951.
During the 1940s and 1950s, many communities in the United States, feeling the need for a renewal of the cultural life they had lost during WWII, formed local organizations to present musical programs for their hometown audiences. This is the story of how Bethlehem’s Chamber Music Society was started at that time.
Two Lehigh University professors, Ralph Steinhardt and Robert Kleinschmidt, wanted to bring chamber music to the area to complement the well-established Bach Choir. Kleinschmidt’s wife had studied with Max Aronoff of the Curtis String Quartet and the Quartet seemed the obvious musical choice to contact. The Curtis members welcomed the idea and agreed to do a series of four concerts a season in Bethlehem. In October 1951, five hundred invitations were mailed and over two hundred members responded to launch the Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem. The annual membership dues were $7.50 and the concerts were open only to subscribers at that time.
Organizational details, membership solicitation, fundraising, and venue selection all had to be resolved. The problems were solved through the hard work of a group of people who were anxious to have live music heard in the city. For more than twenty-five years the Curtis Quartet performed at the Parish House of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity and at the Prosser Auditorium of Moravian College. They often brought additional players for special compositions, such as a pianist or clarinetist. There was some change in personnel as well, including a second violinist who was the father of Zubin Mehta. It was only when the quartet members became reluctant to continue the series, due to age and illness, that the society realized it had to broaden its outlook.
In the late 1970s, the active members were becoming discouraged by a drop in attendance and considered disbanding the organization. Dr. Russell Morgan and others decided to make an appeal to the membership in a last-ditch effort to save the group. Mrs. Morgan arranged a fundraising dinner to which the Board invited everyone they knew who cared about music. Attendees contributed $20 for an evening of cocktails, dinner and music. The Brainerd Trio performed at the Morgan home on March 15, 1980, and the response was enthusiastic and provided a good part of the budget to undertake another season. The big question was: Who was going to perform at the concerts now that the Curtis had retired?
Dr. Morgan found a New York music agent who offered a package of four concerts at about the same fees that had been paid to the Curtis. The CMSOB decided to book young groups just starting out, or foreign groups new to America. Many of these ensembles would become popular in a few year’s time and soon command fees well beyond the Society’s budget! Shortly after the Society started presenting a variety of musical groups, Moravian College completed its new auditorium, Foy Concert Hall, and invited the Society to move its concerts there. This proved to be an ideal setting for chamber music. The combination of these changes led to an increase in membership and attendance.
Although the Society’s mission has not changed since 1951, almost everything else has. The early concerts were “meetings” and attendance was by subscription only. Initially, the group operated solely with membership fees, without recourse to corporate or foundation funding. Sometimes the board members had to prepay their dues to have enough money for postage for the subscription mailing.
As the cost of bringing in musical groups continued to expand, the Society broadened its fundraising activities to include grant writing to procure support from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Council. In the late 1990s subscriptions again began to decline, possibly as a result of the growing number of performing arts offerings at area colleges and the competition from the new Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University. It was time for some new thinking. In 1998, Jennifer Scavuzzo was elected President of the Board of Directors, a position she held for the next ten years. She began an exhaustive study of every aspect of the Society’s activities to find ways to rebuild the audience. Since Jennifer’s tenure as president, Ursla Levy, Paul Larson and Randy Ziegenfuss have also served the Society as Board President.
Today, our challenge remains to make more people aware of the wonderful music the Society offers right here in the Lehigh Valley. The Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem is unique in the area and is one of the very few organizations that present professional chamber music programs by highly acclaimed performing groups in a concert season. On October 16, 2009, we presented our first concert outside of the immediate Bethlehem area. This event was both a “bonus” concert for our subscribers and an attempt to introduce our organization to a potential new audience in the west end of our valley. With generous support from Muhlenberg College, the Claremont Trio with Beth Guterman, viola, performed to an enthusiastic crowd that included several dozen music lovers attending their first CMSOB concert. The Chamber Music Society continues this positive relationship with Muhlenberg College.
The Chamber Music Society is always seeking out individuals interested in supporting the mission of the organization. If you are interested in volunteering with the organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 610-435-7611. We will be in contact with you!