Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 21, 2103
Evanston has always had a song in its heart and music in its soul. According to “The History of Evanston,” the first brass band was organized in 1857, six years before the City’s founding. Church choirs were common in the years immediately following.
The Evanston Amateur Musical Club was founded in 1882 and performed for five years, succeeded by the Evanston Woman’s Club, the Evanston Musical Society, the Mendelssohn Society of Evanston and the Evanston Military Band.
The Evanston Symphony began in 1946 as the Evanston Civic Orchestra, founded by returning war veterans. It has played hundreds of concerts since then and continues to perform five concerts a year. Music director Lawrence Eckerling celebrated his 10th anniversary with the orchestra last season.
But the oldest surviving local music society is the Evanston Music Club, which was founded in 1906. Its mission, according to a 1931 document, was to encourage the “serious study of classical and modern music.
Today its mission remains much the same, to “promote performance and learning about music among its members,” according to Ada Kahn, immediate past president. The group also provides annual scholarships to help worthy Chicago-area music students between the ages of 18 and 26.
No one knows for sure how many scholarships have been granted – records are spotty – but a list of 88 winners goes back to 1950. They include singers, violinists, cellists, violists and flutists, plus a harpist, oboist, clarinetist, marimba player and a classical guitarist. Competitions are held yearly and the winners, selected by a committee of members, perform at a free concert usually held in the spring.
“Promoting the careers of young, worthy players is an important duty and responsibility of established musicians,” said club president John Kula.
Among the winners have been mezzo-soprano Isola Jones, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York for 16 seasons; George Lepauw, founder and president of the International Beethoven Project; and Gary Stucka, cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Winning the scholarship was important to him, Mr. Stucka said. “It was a banner year for me. I was just 20, and the award helped validate that I was on the right track. It gave me a wonderful shot of confidence that I might make it in this profession.” Make it he did, playing with the Grant Park Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra before joining the Chicago Symphony in 1986.
“In the early days, most of the members were women who had the time to devote to the club,” recalled Joanne Stucka, a past president. Today the club has about 40 members and meets once a month from September to May.
Meetings are usually held at private homes, but occasionally at a library. Members usually perform three or four pieces consisting of different arrangements of instruments. Pieces range from traditional 18th and 19th century fare to more off-beat and obscure numbers. Most of the members are older, people who have the time to meet during the week and relish the opportunity to continue to perform.
As Ms. Kahn points out, chamber music was meant to be heard in intimate settings. “It was written to be performed in homes, music among friends,” she said.
In her book, “Keeping the Beat: Healthy Aging Through Amateur Chamber Music Playing,” Ms. Kahn writes about musicians in their seventies, eighties and even nineties who have found that continuing to play helps them stay active and inspired. A 94-year-old woman is quoted as saying, “When I feel down, I take my violin out. It helps me keep my chin up.” And an 85-year-old trumpet player said playing is “…something you can do, and there’s a lot of things you can’t do that you used to.”
“We’re very encouraging,” Ms. Kahn said of member performances. “We don’t criticize. We just applaud and enjoy. Hearing others play inspires me to want to practice and play better and perform myself.”
“It’s a chance for people to express themselves creatively in a socially friendly setting,” said Mr. Kula. “People perform to the best of their ability regardless of age. Maybe our timing isn’t as good as it used to be, and our reflexes are slower. But just because you get older is no reason to stop playing.”
Participants do not have to be musicians. Associate members can host meetings or bring refreshments. For more information on Evanston Music Club membership and scholarships, go to www.evanstonmusicclub.org.