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La Grua Center’s ambitious music series still strong after 10 years

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What do you call an organization that decides to present monthly concerts of stylistically varied and ambitious programs — world music, classical, early music, indigenous and ethnic folk, and more — in a small New England village?

A. Optimistic

B. Visionary

C. Doomed

D. Happily thriving 10 years and some 120 performances after the idea was first pitched

If you answered A, B and D, you're right. You can throw in another correct answer. You can also call it "Music Matters" at the La Grua Center in Stonington.

The series officially celebrated its 10-year anniversary in November and opened its 11th full season earlier this month with the first of 12 concerts for 2020. Over the course of a decade, Music Matters has earned a fine reputation not only for creative programming in a hyper-competitive, arts-happy region, but also for drawing diverse crowds far beyond the parameters of Stonington Borough.

"It was startling to realize how quickly our loyal Stonington listeners came to be outnumbered by regular attendees from Noank and Mystic, Westerly and Avondale and far beyond," says Christopher Greenleaf, an internationally renowned sound engineer and writer who is also the music advisor for and a founding member of the Music Matters Advisory Committee. "We now regularly welcome familiar faces from Providence, Hartford and New Haven — and folks from Beantown and The Apple are no strangers."

"The series started, and it wasn't clear whether it could attract an audience and a sufficient income to pay the performers," says Charles T. Clark, a longtime member of the Music Matters board. "There were probably concerns about competition from Musical Masterworks in Old Lyme and the Essex Winter Series, but we wanted to build on a tradition of 350 years of culture in New England. What's gratifying is that it's not just regulars from Stonington who are at each concert. (La Grua director) Lori (Robishaw) always asks, at the start of each performance, for a show of hands from first-timers, and there's always a healthy response."

Birth of a destination

Of course, the La Grua Center is by design a nonprofit cultural center for the whole community. In 2007, longtime Stonington resident Winnie La Grua funded the acquisition and restoration of a mid-19th century granite foundry in the southern section of the Stonington peninsula. The goal was to open a community center in honor of her late husband Maurice, who was a photographer who had long chronicled life in the Borough.

The La Grua Center opened a year later and continues to serve the public through such activities as weekly yoga and dance programs, participatory West African drumming classes, art exhibitions, lectures and literary readings, and, of course, musical concerts.

With regard to the latter, in 2009, Stonington resident and arts enthusiast Susan Clapp convened a coterie of like-minded citizens to organize the series that became Music Matters and, by November of that year, the inaugural concert had taken place.

"What distinguishes this series is it's more curated," says Robishaw, who became director in 2016. "Christopher works a great deal in Europe and is passionate about the value of live acoustic music. And we like to explore the possibilities. Certainly there is classical, but you'll also hear music that's Irish, Scandinavian, Latin, Turkish, Bulgarian, African, some bluegrass, and of course Portuguese, which resonates because Stonington was originally a Portuguese fishing village." 

"We don't try to emulate or compete with other established series in Rhode Island and Connecticut," Greenleaf says. "We very much go our own way, and our audience appears to delight in hearing a wide range of carefully curated programs in the hall's unusually fresh, warm ambience."

Exotic instruments

In fact, the La Grua Center has wonderful acoustics to conduct non-amplified music. Even with a capacity of about 140 guests, the sight lines are excellent, and the venue is now blessed by the presence of two extraordinary concert pianos. One is the house instrument, a 1922 Mason & Hamlin piano, "one of those singing, deeply expressive grands you read about in Henry James," Greenleaf says.

The other is Greenleaf's own 1886 Chickering piano, which he's loaned the center for the 2020 season. Greenleaf says, "It's a concert grand — a rosewood monster with a lid as big as the flight deck of the USS Forrestal ... with a round, rich sound that sustains forever."

"I think a lot of our artists are surprised and then incredibly happy to see two pianos of that quality in this small venue," Robishaw says. "When they see an instrument from the Listz era, for example, the idea of a concert takes on a very magical quality for them — and then of course for the audience."

"Our two pianos are historical," Greenleaf says, "and naturally our pianists have the choice of either, depnding on their repertoire. In an era when gand piano sound is disappointingly bland — often downright brutal — I feel it's a precious thing to be able to offer our intelligent, curious listeners an alternative."

"There are a lot of variables," Clark says, "but the trick is how to identify worthy artists that fit within our budget, are touring, and who help us reap the challenge the audience is looking for. Our goal has been to maintain a kind of intellectual stasis. The fact is that Music Matters has been popular from the word go. Depending on the season and the availability of musicians, we've had our ups and downs, but throughout we've gotten a strong turnout and we're encouraged to keep trying new and exciting things."

Robishaw says that, in the end, it's all about quality and about pleasing and nurturing what they hope is an increasingly large following.

"We deeply value our core audience," she says, "who probably live in the borough. But we want to be able to serve the whole region in unique ways, and we're trying to get the word out to wider swathe of people. One challenge is that sometimes people think we're a private facility. But it's not a hidden secret; we're doing this for everyone, and we're being free and experimental with our programs to take advantage of the region's diversity."

MUSIC MATTERS — 2020 SEASON

All concerts start at 5 p.m. Saturdays, the La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington; $15 admission for most programs; (860) 535-2300.

March 7 — "From Istanbul" — Western & Turkish Classical & Folk Music

Bülent Evcil, flute

Çağatay Akyol, harp

March 21 — "Nordic Fiddlers Block —Folk strings from Scandinavia & the Shetlands

Olav Luksengård Mjelva, hardanger fiddle, octave fiddle

Anders Hall, fiddle, viola

Kevin Henderson, fiddle

TheNordicFiddlersBloc.com

April 18 — "A Quartet of Piano Trios" with the Hermitage Piano Trio

Misha Keylin, violin

Sergey Antonov, violoncello

Ilya Kazantsev, 1922 Mason & Hamlin grand

Rachmaninoff, Turina, Cassadó, Arbós

May 2 — "Clarinet Trios" with Trio Confero

Maksim Shtrykov, clarinet

Anita Balázs, violoncello

Misuzu Tanaka, 1886 Chickering concert grand

Alexander Zemlinsky Trio in d, Op. 3 Brahms Trio in a, Op. 114

June 13 — "Glorious Schubert!"

Jiayan Sun, , 1886 Chickering concert grand

Franz Schubert, Impromptus (complete) Wanderer Fantasy in C

July 11 — "Pictures and Images"

Nina Tichman, 1886 Chickering concert grand NinaTichman.com

Debussy

Images I & II Schubert Sonata No. 16 in a, D.845

Aug. 22 — "Two Pianos vs. Four Hands"

Olga Vinokur & David Kalhous, 1886 Chickering & 1922 M&H

Sept. 19 — "Brahms — The Three Violin Sonatas"

Daniel Kurganov, violin

Constantine Finehouse, 1886 Chickering

Johannes Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78 Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 100

Sonata No. 3 in d, Op. 108 Kurganov.io

Oct. 17 — "Bach & Britten Solo Cello"

Gabriel Cabezas, violoncello solo

Solo cello suites: J.S. Bach No. 4 in E

Britten No. 3, Op. 87

Nov. 7 — "Marking the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven's Birth"

Stephen Porter, 1886 Chickering concert grand

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata No. 17 in d

"Tempest"

Bagatelles from Opp. 33, 119

& 126 Sonata No. 32 in c, Op. 111

Dec. 12 — Fado concert in development

 

The parking question

If anything is confusing about the success of the La Grua Centers "Music Matters" concert series held monthly in Stonington Borough, it's simply the matter of where to park. We ask La Grua Center director Lori Robichaw to help. She explains:

"La Grua Center is located at 32 Water Street in Stonington Borough and is part of Stonington Commons. We are the public space in a private residential condo community so, as you come down Water Street (one-way), look for the sign on the right that says 'Stonington Commons.' Turn right into the parking lot where parking is free for La Grua Center audiences."

She says the confusion often results from signs that say "No Public Parking." Robishaw says, "But in this case, La Grua Center audiences are our guests, and not considered the 'public.' La Grua Center is the one-story stone building at the far end of the adjacent green. Parking around the green is for Stonington Commons residents only, with the exception of one handicapped parking space that is clearly marked. The biggest mistake people make is parking in the fire lane in front of the condo building right next to our building."

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