Skip to content

Music and Our World

We forget that Mozart is not just a bust on a piano,” said Yehuda Hanani as he explains the “mystery ingredient” behind the continuing success of Close Encounters With Music, the chamber music series he founded and has led for the past three decades.

For the renowned musician, a prodigy of Izaak Stern and Leonard Bernstein, music is a mirror of life and comes alive for audiences when they can understand the stories behind the compositions. “I could write a history of the world through music,” he said. “When you are a musician, it’s not a profession like teaching math; it’s a calling—you live and breathe it.”

Hanani stumbled into doing thematic concerts when more than 30 years ago he flew into Aspen CO to give a concert. He was accompanied by his cello but the program notes were scheduled to arrive on the next plane. Because of inclement weather, the notes did not arrive and he was forced to ad lib the introductory remarks, discovering in the process that the narrative created an intimate, salon-like atmosphere.

He realized that modern audiences are less musically knowledgeable than previous generations and would be receptive to thematic concerts where commentary is woven into the fabric of the program to lead the listeners through.

“When Leonard Bernstein did his talks, it was all about (the technicalities of the music),” he said. “We brought the experience closer to people’s lives so people who don’t have formal musical backgrounds feel more welcomed.”

“I group pieces around a topic and the topic might not necessarily be musical,” he explained. “I could probe some question, it could be psychological, it might be historical. It’s intriguing and people may come from the concerts with a different viewpoint. Music and politics, music and society, music and the life cycle are all connected in a very special way for us.”

The series has explored more than 100 themes on topics as diverse as the “degenerate” music of the Roaring Twenties to the influence of night and dreams. This spring, for instance, CEWM highlighted the Celtic influence on Bach, Beethoven and Haydn. And Hanani is not afraid of running out of inspiration. “Topics are there begging to be discovered,” he said.

On Sunday, June 9th, he will turn his attention to “Great Quintets—Dvorák and Brahms” as an example of how history is reflected in art. He said that Dvořák greatly admired Brahms while Brahms encouraged and mentored the younger Dvořák. But they had vastly different personalities that were reflected in their music.

“Brahms’ music reflects the enigma of his life,” Hanani said. “The love of his life was the wife of his best friend. He never married. There is a sense of paradise lost that can bring tears to your eyes. The fact that he wrote in a rich, low voice and preferred cellos reflects that he had a speech problem—he was a case of arrested maturity and his voice did not drop until he was in his 20s. It’s all there in his music. Dvorák, on the other hand, was a family man, a devout Catholic, full of hope and faith and positivism.”

He said he had chosen “two of the most amazing pieces” by the two composers—Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major and Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34.—each about 40 minutes long. “You seldom hear them both in one night because they are so challenging,” he said.

Sunday’s concert concludes CEWM’s 2023-24 season and will be held at 4PM at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts. A gala will follow and the 2024-25 series will be announced.

The thematic concerts, performed by “colleagues of the highest quality who come from everywhere,” have built a following “of devoted, trusting and enthusiastic friends, almost like a cultural club,” Hanani said. But the organization’s year does not end with the seven concerts it presents each year. Each year it commissions a new piece of music.

Here again the variety is impressive. During the long battle over whether a cement plant could be built along the Hudson River, CEWM commissioned River Songs, a cycle for baritone, cello and piano that connects humans to nature and to its waterways. The work was composed by two-time Grammy-award winner John Musto.

Another innovative piece grew out of a dinner-party remark that younger patrons would be attracted to concerts if a rapper performed. Hanani daringly brought “One Earth” to the stage, a work for string quintet, women’s chorus, rapper Christylez Bacon and an Indian tabla player composed by Tamar Muskal. “It became a huge event, an unforgettable event,” Hanani recalled.

Proving that what is old can be new again, CEWM has even revitalized the works of a forgotten 19th-century composer, Eduard Franck. “Franck was one of Mendelssohn’s few students,” Hanani said. “He had the singular privilege of dining with Mendelssohn every day for a few years in Dusseldorf. His great-great grandson sent me a copy of his ancestor’s compositions, some of which hadn’t seen the light of day in 150 years. We gave the Franck trio its first performance in 2009, and in 2011 we premiered his cello sonata at the Frick Museum in New York. It’s thrilling to resurrect works that have been overlooked by history.”

With its concert series concluding for the year CEWM will again open its annual High Peaks Festival at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington where 45 outstanding students from around the world come to hone their skills. “We have a fabulous faculty,” Hanani said. “It’s an intense immersion in the beauty of music and the beauty of the Berkshires.”

All aspects of High Peaks are open to the public.