The MCR Interview:
MaryGrace Bender and the Nashville Chamber Music Society
Benjamin Gates had a chance to chat with the new star on the Music City Horizon, the Nashville Chamber Music Society’s founder and director, MaryGrace Bender. The following is a transcription of that interview:
MCR: On the Nashville Chamber Music Society’s website, you write that you held on to the ensemble’s web domain for years with the hope you could turn it into something. So what is the Nashville Chamber Music Society, and how did it finally end up going from a URL to a real thing?
MGB: So, the Nashville Chamber Music Society is a group of professional classical musicians in and around Nashville. I grew up in Nashville. I was in the Vanderbilt pre-college program, and growing up, I just really saw a need for chamber music concerts in Nashville. So I went off to school, and I bought the domain, probably like end of high school, I want to say, and I was like “Someday I’d love to make this a thing! I’d love to have chamber music in Nashville and be able to invite friends and just do this together, find ways that we can actually serve our community as well, whether that’s school concerts and even right now, I’m thinking through what could we really do to make a difference. How can we serve communities that aren’t getting to experience beauty in this way? So, I actually started during COVID. I was working at Frothy Monkey as a barista and a server, because, of course, the music world and everything shut down and I needed to pay rent (laughs). So I was working there, which I really enjoyed actually, and I had so many really excellent classical musician friends that didn’t have a place to play. So it started off, I just talked to my manager and I was like “Any chance we could do socially-distanced tables?” because Wednesday nights, Frothy Monkey does this Wind Down Wednesday and I was like “Would it be okay if me and some of my friends just like played some like Beethoven quartets for the people that come on Wednesday nights?” and she was like “Sure!” So I booked kind of this six-week series, and people had to buy tickets in advance, well, it was actually free, you just had to reserve your spot in advance to reserve a table because you had to wear your mask and be socially distanced and all of that stuff. And after the first night, all of the rest of them were reserved for like six weeks. It was fully booked, and I was like “Wow! This is great! And I love that people are excited about this!” And of course, it was a blast getting to play with friends. So that’s how it started. It was very simple and fun. And as things with COVID started to change, I started looking around at different churches and venues and places that could host a concert. Tim Nicholson, who is the music director at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Green Hills/Brentwood area, reached out, well, we got connected through a friend, and he was like “Oh we’d love to have concerts at our church if you guys want to be kind of the resident ensemble here.” And I was like “This is perfect!” (laughs) I was so excited. So, we scheduled some concerts with them, and we’ve been just very slowly growing our audience and growing the network of chamber musicians within Nashville. I’ve definitely had some groups coming in from out of Nashville, when I get to a place where I’m like “Everyone’s booked, and I really need a violinist!” So I’ll call one of my friends from school or something to fly in, so every concert is kind of a different crew, but, yeah, it’s been very, very fun. But kind of the idea is that each concert has like a school concert, an outreach concert, and a venue concert, and so I’m trying to stay really faithful to that to make sure that we’re reaching different kinds of audiences.
MCR: Besides founding and running NCMS, you’re also an active Suzuki teacher and spend your time, as you describe, “passionately promot[ing] the arts at a grassroots level.” For those who may not know, could you explain the Suzuki method briefly, maybe how you came to it, but more importantly how it and your musical outreach tie into your work at NCMS?
MGB: So I grew up in the Suzuki method. The Suzuki method is a way of learning music just like we learn human language, well English or whatever language you learn. We learn our native language by being immersed in it, by hearing it and learning by repetition and copying. That’s kind of how the Suzuki method works—kids learn by copying and listening and creating a sound in their head of what they want and what they can repeat back, and they learn to read music just a little bit later, just in the same way we learn to read normally around preschool/Kindergarten, but we’re already speaking at that point. So, I try to get the kids to be “speaking” the language of music before they start reading the language of music. And so I grew up in the Suzuki method at Vanderbilt pre-college, again, and then went on to school and to conservatory and got my Masters in Suzuki pedagogy, so I got registered in Suzuki method, and I knew that I would love to teach music at some point, because obviously music has had an incredible impact on my life. My first teacher, Anne Williams, who is now retired, but was a cellist in Nashville, really gave me the gift of music in an incredible way, so I just always have admired her and wanted to be like her. So, I teach. I have about 17 students. I actually live in Huntsville, Alabama now; I just got married and moved over the summer, so I drive into Nashville for NCMS and for teaching one day a week. So I teach my kids in a long, full day! (laughs) And my ages span from a 4 year old up through like end of high school, like kids getting ready to audition for colleges. So that kind of connects through, like a lot of my students play in retirement homes and I have them do outreach concerts along with their regular recitals because if music isn’t given to other people, it’s a joy to practice on your own, but it has to be given to other people to fully experience music. So I try to encourage that with my students and try to promote that any way I can with NCMS as well.
MCR: As you well know, the NCMS’s spring season kicks off next week with a program called “A Walk Through Italy,” which appears to have a special focus on repertoire featuring the guitar. Can you talk a bit about the pieces on the program, and a little of what you hope or expect the audience to take away from it?
MCB: This concert came about because Miles McConnell, who is a local classical guitarist, reached out to me about a year ago, and he really presented me with this program, he was like “Hey, would you be interested in doing this program? I have some of this music ready.” And I was like “Sure!” So we looked through, and it was a great program. It’s all Italian-based music. It’s very warm and welcoming and inviting to any audience member who has little to no experience with classical music or knows a lot about classical music. It’s just a very welcoming program. Yes, it’s very guitar-focused, and I think each of the pieces is quite challenging and fun for the quartet as well. We get to add a lot to the guitar, and the guitar adds so much color to the quartet. Probably one of my favorite ones on the program is the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Quintet for Guitar and Strings. It’s just so creative and the first violin, who will be Jimin Lim, who’s in the Nashville Symphony, she just gets so many melodies and it’s just really beautiful. Also, I’m excited to kind of walk through each of these pieces. I think it will be a really colorful and beautiful journey for the audience members.
MCR: So to wrap things up, of course next week’s concert is only the beginning of the spring season for NCMS. What else should concertgoers look forward to from you all this season?
MCB: Yeah, next in our season we have Annie Fullard and Friends, which will be really fun. I’m in a quartet here in Nashville called the Zimri Quartet, and all four quartet members have studied with Annie Fullard at one time. She used to be the Director of Chamber Music at Cleveland Institute of Music, and she’s taught at my undergrad, which was the McDuffie Center for Strings. And she’s just been a huge influence to all four members of the quartet, so we love her dearly. And so we called her up and I was like “Hey! Would you want to come do a concert with us?” And she was like “I would love to!” So she’s coming down. It’s a double viola quintet, so that’ll be a lot of fun. And then the next thing we have is the Ivalis Quartet, which is another group of friends that I’m excited to have come down. They’re in residence at the Juilliard School and have made just an incredible impact in the music world and music education, and I love them dearly and am so excited to have them come. We don’t know their program yet. They’re going to let us know as soon as they can, but they’re putting together, I’m sure, something really special. And then the last thing this spring, and there’ll be a couple more this summer, but the last thing this spring is featuring a local composer, Noah Fran, another person that reached out to me and he was like “Hey, I wrote this piece, and I would love to get it performed.” So we both studied through the score together and I was like “This is going to be really fun!” So I would love to do more of that, like featuring local musicians and local composers and letting an audience hear what they’re creating. So that’s what’s to come this spring.
MCR: Awesome. That’s great! Thank you so much.
MCB: Yeah, absolutely!