Inspiring Chamber Music In An Intimate Setting
In her fifties, Joan Kretschmer founded a unique chamber music society with renowned musicians.
Joan Kretschmer has always marched to her own drummer. In seventh grade, when her junior high school band director told her she’d only get to play her glockenspiel at one-third of the performances, she picked up a trombone instead. In 1972 she was the second woman at Columbia University to earn a PhD in musicology since the department was founded. In her fifties, she single-handedly founded the Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York with a four-concert sampler to give budding musicians an audience. Determined to overcome the challenges of sustaining an independent arts society in the competitive music center of the US, Kretschmer has pursued her goal unflinchingly, managing to attract major musicians and develop a loyal audience. The Lyric has earned the respect of renowned music aficionados; her board includes luminaries Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, and André Watts; performers have included flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, violinist Glenn Dicterow, and many principals from the New York Philharmonic.
“The experience of hearing great or near-great music, played by first-rank musicians in a relatively intimate space where you can even feel the music, is unsurpassed,” said board member and attorney Ambrose Richardson. Added Edward M.W. Hines, who, with his wife, has been attending Lyric concerts for 10 years, “Where else can one find that special combination of inspiring music, extraordinary musicianship, and convivial conversation with the musicians that Joan brings together?
Musicians, too, rave. “These days, when our lives are so busy and we hardly have a chance to breathe, Lyric concerts offer an atmosphere where the audience has a chance to forget about their daily routine and problems, and for a few hours have an intellectually and emotionally inspiring experience,” says pianist Tatiana Goncharova, a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music and a Lyric performer who has toured with violinist Pinchas Zukerman.
There Is Never Enough Great Music
Of course, in New York City, chamber music can be found in virtually every neighborhood, including right across the street from Kretschmer’s home, at Lincoln Center. Yet, she says, Lyric is in competition with no one. “There is never enough music, and there can never be enough great music-making.” Lyric is, indeed, different. While there are no “house” musicians, Lyric nurtures a nucleus of players from their music school graduations and for years beyond. “We are not just a one-shot deal,” Kretschmer says. Lyric also attracts star musicians with storied careers. Kretschmer and Lyric’s managing director, Julia Reinhart, an engineer with a master’s degree in music business, devise each season’s program by networking the world over, though the prime focus is finding musicians living in and around New York City. They seek music that, in its day, might have been played in a castle or 18th- or 19th-century chateau. They have approximated this atmosphere by holding concerts in the living room of the 100-year-old Kosciuzko Townhouse on East 65th Street; the Renaissance-style room dazzles with carved oak panelling, tapestried window valances, and 17-foot ceilings decorated with intricate Baroque plasterwork.
Each 70-minute concert has about 100 attendees and begins with commentary and music notes from Kretschmer; the artists add their own words. “The audience gets a chance to hear the performers in a way they ordinarily wouldn’t—up close and personal,” Kretschmer says. And every concert is followed by a reception in a main dining room, where attendees can enjoy wine and refreshments and talk with musicians.
Kretschmer, who has two sons (Keith and Elliot Thomson) and two grandsons (Henry and Matthew Thomson), is a modest-seeming but headstrong woman who has never taken no for an answer. In 2000, for instance, Lyric bumped up against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Russian government bureaucracy. Two weeks before a Lyric event that Kurt Masur (then New York Philharmonic conductor) was to attend, Kretschmer learned that a proper visa had not been obtained by a Russian musician from the Moscow Conservatory who was to play with the Moscow Quartet, whose members were living in Colorado. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Russia suggested she cancel the concert. But Kretschmer was undeterred. Many phone calls later, including well-placed requests to the White House through the office of Hillary Clinton, who was then running for the U.S. Senate, the musician obtained the visa he needed. “If I hadn’t made all those calls and stuck with it, he would have been stranded in Russia,” Kretschmer recalls.
Kretschmer, the youngest of three children, launched her love of music herself. Her parents, immigrants from Poland and Rumania who did not graduate from high school, paid for her piano lessons starting in the second grade. She began college at Smith, but, as her passion for music grew, so did her desire to transfer to a big city. She transferred to Barnard as a junior and began attending Metropolitan Opera concerts, among others, while majoring in government. After graduation, she enrolled at Columbia to study musicology; later, marriage took her to Connecticut.
She moved back to the City in her 40s. A new divorcee with two sons, Kretschmer engaged in all manner of musical activities, writing music columns for The New York Post, The New York Times, Opera News, Stagebill, Keynote, and other publications, as well as program notes for “Mostly Mozart” and the Metropolitan Museum. In the late 1980s, at the New School for Social Research, she created and hosted Musicians on Music, a series of interviews with such artists as Rampal; conductors and pianists Daniel Barenboim and Victor Borge; singers Birgit Nilsson, Marilyn Horne, and Robert Merrill; conductor Zubin Mehta; musician, author and satirist Peter Schickele; and pianist André Watts. She also taught at SUNY Purchase and at the Metropolitan Opera Guild. And she took up piano again, under the tutelage of WQXR performer and pianist Jascha Zayde—ultimately performing with musicians from the New York Philharmonic and other Lyric Society artists at chamber music gatherings in her home, as well as at the Lotus Club and with the Lyric.
After years away from the piano, she began playing again as a single mom and, years of arpeggios later, she now teaches piano to adults and children from her home overlooking Lincoln Center. She has also added short-story and youth fiction writing to her curriculum vita. Of course, with phones from distant countries ringing as she entertains a reporter, it’s clear that Lyric is an anchor of her life and that of many others. “I have learned how important exercise, family, work, friends, and the arts are to having a full and rich existence,” she says. “I am grateful to be alive and healthy, taking no medicines, helping young musicians, teaching piano, writing, taking photographs and simply living in New York City.”
Emily Sachar is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book author and award-winning journalist who ran the Web sites for Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, MORE magazine and Reader’s Digest. She currently writes for Crain’s New York Business and is the legal columnist for AARP Bulletin, among many other publications.