Jukebox isn’t quite the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in miniature. Now in its fourth season, this unique program brings audiences into intimate contact with music and musicians, inviting new listeners and veterans to share the joy of concert music.
“We wanted this experience with Jukebox to be up close and personal, not only with the musicians, but the music,” explains Ben Cadwallader, the VSO’s executive director. “And the musicians always stick around and hang out. Audience members get to hang out with the musicians.”
“I cannot think of a better way to herald a future colossal musical endeavor, as a symphony concert truly is, than a preview chamber concert,” adds violinist Letitia Quante. “I consider it our job in this series to create a tremor on a programmatic scale so that our audiences leave primed with excitement to hear this music on a symphonic scale.”
Jukebox comes to Rutland and Burlington next weekend, when soprano Mary Bonhag joins the four VSO strings in music of many genres from today to Mozart, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17 at Merchants Hall in Rutland, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18 at ArtsRiot in Burlington. As a result of their four years of Jukebox, violinists Quante and Brooke Quiggins, violist Stefanie Taylor and cellist John Dunlop have now become the Arka Quartet.
“Part of what makes it so successful as that it’s really different,” explains Burlington composer Matt LaRocca, who programs and emcees the Jukebox concerts.
“As a whole, people listen to every genre of music,” he said. “There’s nothing off the table anymore. I wanted to create this place where not only new music, old music, different styles of music coexist, but make it so they all boost each other up, and they all amplify each other.
“From the audience perspective, each show is very different,” he said. You don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s the unexpected that there’s an expectation of.”
Next weekend’s program features live composers Jessie Montgomery, Jim Territo, Aftab Darvishi and Kathy Wonson Eddy of Randolph, plus Marshfield composer Evan Premo’s arrangement of The Weavers’ “Two Brothers” and “Kisses.” Bonhag will be heard in Sequenza III for female voice by Luciano Berio and the Laudamus te from Mozart’s C minor Mass.
For Quiggins, “The concept of playing only one or two movements from a work (with most works composed by lesser-known composers) before moving on to the next work allows us to present a sneak peak of the pieces to the audiences, usually leaving them wanting more.
“I personally find the programs to be very challenging, as we are tasked with jumping from one style of music to another back to back through a single program, but the pieces are carefully selected by Matt in a way that keeps things very interesting for both the musician and the listener,” she said.
Jukebox was created by Cadwallader, who soon leaves his position at the VSO to become executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and LaRocca, VSO special projects chairman, to expand symphony audiences.
“When you have a deeper understanding of the music on stage, it speaks to you at a different level, it becomes more personal,” Cadwallader said. “That was where the idea of interaction with the musicians both during and after the performance came from.”
“Jukebox is one of my most favorite concert series to play,” Quiggins said. “Not only does it allow me to make incredible music with some of my favorite colleagues, but we’re able to introduce audiences to different styles of music in a unique, intimate setting unlike anything else in Vermont right now.
“I’m always excited to see what the next program will be, and especially like that we are able to give input from time to time about pieces that we think would work on these programs,” she said.
“It’s a very different kind of connection which I believe is valuable for the audience and us as well,” Dunlop said. “Over the last few seasons we’ve made friends and seen people coming back repeatedly because of that personal connection.”
The result has been full houses, with audiences representing demographics from teens to seniors.
“You don’t feel you have to sit down, be quiet and listen,” LaRocca said, “but people do sit down, be quiet and listen, because the music is so good and the performers are so amazing.”
Unplanned but a decided benefit of Jukebox is that the four musicians have formally formed as the Arka Quartet, currently Vermont’s only professional string quartet.
“They have a following,” Cadwallader said. “Not only are they great performers, they have great personalities. They enjoy meeting people off stage.”
“Typically, the Jukebox repertoire requires us to rehearse for many hours together, which has allowed us to figure out our collective sound and maximize our musical and interpersonal strengths,” Quiggins said. “In between Jukebox performances, we started to go through a real withdrawal of playing chamber music together. We then started playing our own performances outside of Jukebox”
Dunlop, longtime principal cellist of the VSO who has played in many of the sate’s top chamber ensembles, concurs.
“Anytime a quartet is able to work on multiple programs together it’s going to grow in ways that it couldn’t if it were a different ensemble each time,” he said. “Timing, intonation, sensitivity to each others’ styles and nuances are all improved by spending as much time together as we do.”
In addition to Jukebox, more Arka Quartet performances are being planned for this spring and summer.
“I could wax on rhapsodically about what this series has meant to me, being part of this group,” Quante said. “It has grown to a point where, program after program, I fall deeply in love with what Brooke, Stefanie and John are capable of. We take on incredibly challenging repertoire and pour our hearts and nerves into making it come alive.
“We do it with good cheer and endless hours of rehearsal,” she said. “We do it with a collective feeling of opening our hearts to the audience and accepting the pressure to make sure we create the absolute best program results every time, no matter what!”