Music Commentary: The Inspiration of “Music for Food”

The pairing of food for the stomach and food for the soul made me think of the role of culture in extreme situations.

By Helen Epstein

Reviewers were not invited to Monday’s Music for Food concert at New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall. Although the musicians are all professional, they donate their services, just as the audience is asked to bring donations of food and money rather than purchase tickets of admission. The nature of the concerts sits somewhere on the spectrum between readings and fully rehearsed performances. They are not meant to be reviewed. Instead, I’ll offer my thoughts on this inspiring, new tradition, first brought to Boston by violist Kim Kashkashian in 2010. The program takes on special resonance on the day a surreptitious video recording of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks about food stamps and entitlements for the 47% was making the rounds.

To my mind, there’s not much better than listening to chamber music played live and unamplified in intimate surroundings. NEC’s Brown Hall is such a venue, a ballroom-like space with ochre walls reminiscent of Central Europe, where so much of the chamber repertory comes from. The audience sits in a wide semi-circle around the performers. Sounds of students practicing waft into the space from all directions. The ambiance is that of a work-in-progress. Conservatory students, usually fixated on practicing, are encouraged to take a break from their scores and instruments to consider the city in which they live.

On Monday, the program was a mix of well-known and less-performed work, vocal and instrumental. Opening was a set of rarely-performed Dvorak, solo piano pieces veteran pianist Lydia Artymiw had recently discovered and decided to share. That was followed by a set of songs for soprano by Ernest Chausson. They were performed by Kendra Colton, accompaniment provided first by pianist Eliko Akahori and then a string quartet. The quartet, violinists Bayla Keyes and Julia Glenn, violist Roger Tapping, and cellist Natasha Brofsky then joined Ms. Artymiw for Dvorak’s piano Quintet No.2.

The pairing of food for the stomach and food for the soul made me think of the role of culture in extreme situations. One of my mother’s cousins, Vlasta Schoenova, used to perform one-woman shows—even when she was incarcerated as a Jewish prisoner in the Terezin concentration camp during the second world war. She often expressed her amazement that desperately hungry people would trade their meal tickets for a ticket to a theatrical performance. One of those people was my mother.

Music for Food is a unique project that makes it possible for audience members to provide food for others while receiving pleasure and cultural sustenance for themselves. The next concert in the series is on Monday, November 12 at NEC. Bring a bag of food, a check, and be prepared for a wonderful time.

Music for Food is a Boston-based musicians’ initiative for hunger relief. Helen Epstein’s translation of Acting in Terezin is available on Kindle.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Miron on September 19, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    I think Helen caught the atmosphere very nicely, with one exception. I’ve been to five of these concerts (all four last year) and I never ever felt that the ambience was like a work-in-progress. The individual pieces were always performed at a very high, polished level of professionalism. Many of the out-of-town musicians have been colleagues of Kim Kashkashian’s from Marlboro, and we get to hear them at Music for Food concerts without having to go to Longy or Gardner Museum, etc. in an intimate setting of less than 300 people. The performances are by no means readings. They have been rehearsed well and by people who know how to rehearse effectively!

    This season features two pieces by Antonin Dvorak on each concert with another piece by another composer on each concert. They are always wonderful concerts, and really help raise money and consciousness about food insecurity in Eastern Massachusetts.

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