By Keith Powers
Sometimes the audience is glued to the musicians. Other times, “the alpha male in the audience doesn’t care, and so nobody else is allowed to, either,” says Timothy Merton, co-artistic director of Sarasa Ensemble.
Two different audiences, but one venue: a house of correction.
Sarasa doesn’t just perform in lockups, as enthusiastic audiences at more traditional venues in the Boston area over the past 20 years will eagerly attest. But since Merton’s first appearance at Sing Sing in 1997, the ensemble has continued to work performances in adult prisons, correctional facilities for teenagers, and mental hospitals into its regular concert schedule.
“A lot has happened in 20 years, in the world and in the group,” Merton says. “But it really hasn’t changed the mission at all. The group started out as a collective — I think more than 135 different musicians have played with Sarasa. It’s not run by all of those people, but we use different players for different repertoire.”
Merton and his life and musical partner, Jennifer Morsches, are cellists and co-directors of Sarasa, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season — “and next: we’re going to spread it out over two years,” says Merton — in the most appropriate way: by playing music with lots of colleagues, in lots of different places.
Two programs in October start the subscription season: a Bach concert, based on The Art of Fugue, and concerts featuring octets — Charpentier, Schnittke, and Mendelssohn — in collaboration with the Richter Ensembles, a chamber music initiative founded by violinist Rodolfo Richter. Early December programs include music of Boccherini and Mozart with violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Christina Day Martinson among the guests.
A world premiere by Julian Grant forms the centerpiece of several March programs, and arrangements of Beethoven and Mozart conclude the season in May.
“We have a huge range of what we do, from Baroque to contemporary,” Merton says. Programs mixing Berio and Bach, Schnittke and Charpentier, the Grant premiere, and Italian Baroque bear that out.
“We’re having some larger groups than usual for the 20th anniversary, and doing things like the Mendelssohn Octet is kind of big for us. And we’re trying to bring Boccherini out of the shadows again. It’s quite amazing music.”
Morsches has been doing the programming for Sarasa for the past three seasons.
“I ask Tim if it’s okay,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s not,” he says.
“I’m trying to diversify the repertoire,” she adds, “making connections that are sometimes distant, making interesting juxtapositions. Some of our audience just loves traditional music, and they were quite worried last year about the Ligeti ‘Continuum.’ It was a push beyond what we normally do.”
“But we talk about it before the program,” Merton adds. “That’s what we do.”
Well, it’s part of what they do. The dedication to performances in correctional facilities is also a part. It’s an effort that transcends choices in repertoire or explaining the nuances of Ligeti or Boccherini to audiences. Most of this audience is experiencing classical music — and seeing these instruments — for the first time.
“I was so impressed with the focus when I first went to Sing Sing,” Merton says, “how they were listening, the openness to something of beauty. And the feeling we had of trying to get our music across to people who have never experienced it at all.”
Merton organizes two types of performances: weeklong residencies that get prisoners involved in the music-making — beat-box jams to Vivaldi, and the like — usually in the summer, along with shorter performance visits. Sarasa has done more than 250 such presentations and been awarded Early Music America’s Early Music Outreach Award (in 2007), as well as a more recent citation, a Community Partner Award by the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.
“It’s bringing music to audiences that never will get it,” Merton says. “In juvenile detention centers, they are in a different world. Getting the music across to them can be a challenge, but we manage to learn how to do it. They have a street sense; they recognize things that are authentic.
“We talk about ourselves and our instruments,” he continues. “We try to bring them into it as much as possible. You can’t believe how interested they are in our instruments. And in one program we had a countertenor. They couldn’t believe it. They would have never heard that sound if not for us. They started laughing, of course, but after that they were completely absorbed by it.”
Sarasa’s residencies are much more than just showing up for an hour and then leaving. “We visit three times for a couple of hours,” Merton says. “We work with them, creating rap or something. When they write things, it’s not that easy for them — writing something that’s acceptable, that’s not gang-related language.”
“You definitely notice the focus when you’re in the room,” Morsches says.
Sarasa’s other audience is equally focused. “We’re like a family,” says Morsches of the core audiences in Cambridge, Concord, and Lexington. “You can feel how important live music in performance is to them. It’s intimate, and you can’t replicate it on CDs or on YouTube. It’s our other big mission.”
The commission from Julian Grant furthers the ensemble’s efforts to mix the new and the old. Folded into Sarasa’s March programs, “Uccelli Barocco–Baroque Birds,” Grant’s short opera is based on Rhoda Levine’s children’s book, Three Ladies Beside the Sea. Morsches met the British-born composer during last season’s world premiere of Grant’s The Nefarious, Immoral, but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr Hare at the Boston Lyric Opera.
“Jennifer came to the premiere,” Grant says. “She mentioned the bird-song program, and Rhoda Levine is a neighbor of mine. I’ve known her for thirty-odd years — for all that time she was a busy opera director, and I was a busy opera composer. But I love her children’s book, and it was a beautiful coincidence. And a chance to work together.”
“It’s a book in verse,” Morsches says, “about three ladies, and one of the sisters is always up in a tree, looking for this elusive bird. I loved the way Julian used text in ‘Burke & Hare,’ and after dinner and an email exchange we got him to write this for us.”
“We’ve had three commissions before this,” Merton says. “Sometimes early music doesn’t even come into what we’re doing. It’s a range of Baroque to contemporary. We’ll play classical and Romantic music on gut strings. We want to continue to program more visibly, but we want to keep the informality and not lose the intimate feeling we have. It’s a bit of a juggling thing.”
And while they’re juggling, audiences of all kinds are reaping the rewards.
Sarasa Ensemble opens its 20th-anniversary season with three concerts in greater Boston Oct. 19-21 featuring Bach’s The Art of Fugue interspersed with music by Berio, Dutilleux, and Penderecki. For more information, visit www.sarasamusic.org or call 617-429-0332.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to firstname.lastname@example.org