This may come as a surprise, but the story behind the unassuming-sounding Asheville Chamber Music Series has the makings of a Hollywood movie. The classical music organization was founded in 1952 by Joe Vandewart, a refugee from Nazi Germany who first landed in New York City, where he worked as a butler. Eventually, the music lover moved to Asheville and persuaded his musician friends in New York to visit and perform in his new locale. To fund the concerts, Vandewart set up a stand in the Grove Park Inn, selling $4 season passes to the newly minted music series. Now, six decades later, the Asheville Chamber Music Series attracts musicians from all over the world.
For its next concert, the organization brings the Festival Pablo Casals Prades to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville on Friday, Oct. 17. The festival, which is around the same age as the Asheville Chamber Music Series, first took place in 1950, when Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was encouraged to put together a performance in celebration of J.S. Bach’s bicentennial. Now led by artistic director and French clarinetist Michel Lethiec, the event will feature Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde,” Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes” and Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1.
How did Vandewart’s $4 season pass “for an unspecified number of concerts” launch one of the oldest chamber music organizations in the U.S., hosting 250 concerts by some of the world’s finest classical musicians over the past six decades? Local support accounts for the series’ longevity as well as its ability to attract audience members and donors. Most recently, the organization was able to purchase a Steinway piano thanks to a $50,000 fundraising effort within the span of two years. “That really says a lot for a small city like Asheville,” says board member Marilynne Herbert.
For the uninitiated, chamber music is a form of classical music composed for a small group of musicians. Board president and concert pianist Polly Feitzinger says it’s the proximity that really makes the music special. “You’re so close to the musicians,” she says. “I think there was a famous German poet who said that chamber music is the most intimate form of music between people who are playing together.” The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville has become a favorite venue for that reason. The semicircular shape and raised seating of the church’s sanctuary creates a cozy atmosphere, and “everybody has a wonderful view,” Feitzinger says.
Over the years, the Asheville Chamber Music Series has been approached by more and more agents interested in booking performances — a welcome shift from the past when Feitzinger had to reach out to performers. She and Herbert attribute the increased interest not only to Asheville’s rise in popularity as a tourist destination, but also the reputation the series has acquired as being a good host. “After the performance, the musicians mingle,” says Herbert. “There’s a genuine respect and admiration. I think that they feel a warmth [here] that they might not feel in other cities.”
While the series does have a strong local base of concertgoers — often drawing more than 200 audience members for each performance — the organization would love to attract people who don’t typically seek out classical music, says Herbert. “We’re trying to encourage more young people to attend the concerts so they can experience how wonderful it is.” To that end, tickets are free for students under the age of 25, and the Asheville Chamber Music Series is actively booking youthful and exceptionally talented artists.
“These are not all old, gray-haired musicians,” says Herbert. “These are young, attractive, dynamic musicians.”
WHAT: Asheville Chamber Music Series presents Festival Pablo Casals Prades Collective, ashevillechambermusic.org
WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, 1 Edwin Place
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. $38 general, free for students