Dee Stevens

Musician, mover, and shaker.

A few latecomers trickle in, the lobby doors close, and the house lights fade. You don’t hear a drum roll, because Dee Stevens is the drum roll. She energetically strides up on to the stage in her designer dress with the flair and aplomb of a Hollywood star. This Vineyard ritual has happened for forty years, since Delores Stevens founded what has become the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society.

Dee has a legion of followers on the Island, some of whom sat on the floor of the Chilmark Community Center where the concerts began decades ago and some of whom still come to her concerts today. We sat down with her to discuss her career and her influence on the music of the Vineyard.

How did you decide to become a pianist?

I grew up in Kingman, Kansas, a small town where every house had a piano. My father was a powerful politician and served as the president of the Kansas Senate for twenty-eight years. I was his little sidekick. I’d sing and dance and perform all the Shirley Temple songs in his political arenas. During the Depression, I even sang for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a relief program for unemployed men. I learned to sing from my mother, a beautiful woman with a wonderful voice.

I had taken piano lessons since I was four years old and sight-read music very well. When I was eight, I went to Sunday school at the local Presbyterian church. The head of the Sunday school, a man who sang with exuberance, needed an accompanist. He’d hand me a sheet of music and I’d play. By ten, I found myself a job as accompanist in the local Methodist church, but I was fired. I played too fast. Those Methodists moved very slowly.

How did you become interested in chamber music?

Chamber music is an intimate musical performance by a small group of independent players, usually not more than nine, who perform with no conductor. When I was eighteen years old, studying music at the University of Kansas, I heard the Griller [String] Quartet play a Bartรณk string quartet. Amazing, I said to myself. If this is what modern music is, I want to be a part of it. But the best thing about music is that one doesn’t have to study music to get a thrill out of it. Music touches even those who know very little about it. Chamber music may be traditional or modern, classical or jazz, and it continues to evolve creatively every year.

What brought you to Martha’s Vineyard?

My first job was teaching music in Honolulu at Punahou High School, the school that President Obama attended. I moved next to Los Angeles, where I met and married my husband, Jim. We became friends with John Gates, a clarinetist, and his wife, Caroline Worthington, who played the cello. I joined them playing piano, and that was the start of the Montagnana Trio. Caroline’s mother lived on Martha’s Vineyard and invited us to perform in 1971. Our first performance was in the Katharine Cornell Theater at the tricentennial celebration of the town of Tisbury. For the next ten years, we moved to the Chilmark Community Center for a series of summer performances. The Montagnana Trio became the Chilmark Chamber Players during the 1980s. In 1988, we also played at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs and finally at the Old Whaling Church [in Edgartown]. The board of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society was formed in 1992.

As the years passed, John left the trio, then Caroline, and by 2001, I carried on by myself by engaging guest musicians to perform and to play with me. During the Montagnana Trio’s years of touring in Europe and its association with the Columbia Artists label, we met many accomplished musicians, and these became the musicians I invited to Martha’s Vineyard over the years. It wasn’t hard to lure these guests, as the board members and I treated them royally. They loved to visit the Vineyard, eat lobster in Menemsha, and perhaps even go on a sail with some of our board members in exchange for their performances and modest monetary compensation.

Our current summer festival season takes place on Mondays at the Old Whaling Church and on Tuesdays at the Chilmark Community Center – 2010 is our fortieth year! We open our fortieth season with a commissioned piece written by Gunther Schuller and played by Anthony McGill. These performers are emblematic of the world-class musicians we engage to play on this little island. Gunther Schuller was the director of Tanglewood [Music Center] and also served as president of the New England Conservatory of Music. Anthony McGill played with Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzak Perlman at the inauguration of President Obama.

Your professional career extends more than fifty years. Share some of its highs and lows.

There were so many highs. The Montagnana Trio toured the world for years as the only professional trio of clarinet, cello, and piano. We were hired to record twenty-eight pieces of commissioned music. One of our greatest honors was to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Among the lows was being so dizzy from travel that we wondered where we were and how we got there. Once after a long flight to Stockholm, with no sleep, we entered a red velvet hall where we were to perform. I walked onto the stage, sat at the piano, and fell asleep in the middle of the first number.

How much do you rehearse for each summer concert?

A lot. First, I believe that musicians need to be together to do more than play. When you eat, cook, and live together as well as make music, there’s a tie that happens. I open my home to our performers. I have dorm spaces for several sleepers. We start rehearsing no later than Saturday morning, rehearse all day, relax at night, and rehearse again on Sunday and Monday mornings and afternoons. We perform on Monday night and, if we’re not happy with some aspect of the performance, we rehearse again on Tuesday. With a little bit of luck, the musicians get to go to the beach on Tuesday afternoons. They perform on Tuesday night and leave the Island on Wednesday morning.

Can you tell what kind of audience you’ll have when you first stand on the stage to introduce the concerts?

I can tell by the end of the first piece. Virtuoso pieces bring wild applause and that applause excites the musicians to play even better. I want the audiences to have a total aesthetic experience. That’s why I want beautiful flowers on the stage at every performance. We want to please the eyes as well as the ears.

Speaking of pleasing the eyes, you’re known for your own fashion statements. Where do you get your fabulous clothes?

My daughter, Vicki, gets most of my gorgeous gowns. We wear the same size and she loves to find my outfits.

Do other family members play a role in your success?

Absolutely. My husband, Jim, has been my artistic partner for years. He turns the Chilmark Community Center into a concert hall, moves the piano and every piece of furniture himself, and assists with the production of the program. My son, Paul, writes the program notes with intelligence and a sense of humor, and has played French horn in every Vineyard summer series for twenty years.

How does the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society find the money to cover everything from musicians and travel costs to advertising and concert hall rentals?

Since the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society came into being, we’ve had dedicated boards. Most important are the donors and the concert sponsors who bring each summer festival to life with their generosity. Some have sponsored individual concerts for more than ten years with contributions of $5,000 to $10,000. People don’t want to give music up.

The music is more important than the pay. The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society operates on a shoestring budget.

Despite all your good planning and the work of your board and general manager, crises always happen. Tell about some of these.

In 2007, the harpist arrived late Sunday for a flute/harp/viola trio to be performed on Monday night. On Monday morning, she was admitted to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for an emergency appendectomy. We had to change the entire program and prepare for the evening in just a few hours.

For a 2008 concert, I invited members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to perform. The day before the cellist was to arrive, he had an accident that cut off the end of his finger. As a result neither he nor his wife (part of the ensemble) could come to the Vineyard. I had to find two replacements two days before the concert. Fortunately for the cellist, his finger was reattached and he plays successfully today.

But sometimes the crisis happens to me even more directly. Once I shopped for my concert outfit in Edgartown. I bought a chic Japanese jacket and crepe black wrap-around pants with an interesting flow. I headed up the stairs at the Whaling Church, sat myself at the piano and as I started to play, the pants opened and exposed both of my legs. I squirmed, precariously slid my leg to the side, trying to arrest any more exposure, my fingers dancing on the keys. The audience giggled.

Do you see music education and funding for the arts in trouble in our country?

Music raises self-esteem for children. I belong to several organizations that directly support musicianship in youth through scholarships and coaching. Excellent instruction is the most important ingredient for young musicians. That’s why the MV Chamber Music Society supports lesson scholarships and offers the opportunity for advanced study in music to a graduating high school senior.

It’s true that federal, state, and local funding are difficult to obtain, but attendance at our concerts hasn’t declined. People yearn to be lifted out of their daily lives during difficult times.