The Hop River Chamber Music (HRCM) ushered in its first series of July concerts in the summer of 1979. Co-founded by violinist Jane Carlberg and cellist Mary Lou Rylands, these concerts originally provided an additional venue for works prepared for performances presented earlier that year. In 1989, in celebration for its 10th anniversary, the Willimantic Chronicle quoted Carlberg as saying, “It’s a very congenial, happy group of people… We look forward to the time we spend together rehearsing. As long as the musicians and the audience are there, I can’t see it stopping.” A more prophetic statement could not have been spoken as Hop River Chamber Music plans for its 38th consecutive concert season in 2016.
In 1985, Kathleen Labadorf became Administrator with Thomas Labadorf as Artistic Director for the following eleven years. During this time, HRCM presented annual Kid’s Koncerts at the Channel 3 Country Camp in nearby Coventry, CT working with camp director Edward Turn. Additional performances were presented as fund raisers to help offset the operating costs of the regular series. These performances took the form of classic pops (“Hops Pops”) and jazz concerts as well as musical soirées presented in vintage Victorian homes in Willimantic. Edward Turn took over as president of HRCM from 1996 to 2005, tirelessly committing time and energy as Administrator, Audience Development, and Church Liaison. During these years, musicians Annette Shapiro, Patricia Bellingham, and Frances Bard worked together as Artistic Directors to continue its excellent programming with selections from a wide variety of chamber music styles. In 2005, Dr. Bruce Bellingham succeeded Edward Turn as president. His ability for organization, background of 29 years as Professor of Musicology at the University of Connecticut, and active community involvement provided the perfect combination to lead the organization into the new millennium.
At the unexpected death of Dr. Bruce Bellingham in 2010, Dr. Karl Stetson took over as interim president to continue leadership until a new president could be appointed. At this time, Barbara Vaughan and Gary Chapman joined with Frances Bard to continue providing the excellent programs as Artistic Directors. In 2011, Dr. Carolyn Lester succeeded Dr. Stetson as president. To this day, she organizes and manages the myriad of details that are inherent to this well-established organization.
By the overwhelming audience response of that first concert, it was evident that HRCM could fill a valuable need for chamber music in eastern Connecticut; thus, a concert series was planned for the next year. In 1982, the group received help with a grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Taking its official name from the river that flows directly behind the concert venue, Ms. Carlberg assembled its first board of directors with Kenneth Lester as president and presented its third expanded series of three concerts in July. In 1983, HRCM became incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
Since then, it has continued to offer annual concert series free of charge to the general public through the generosity of grants, local businesses, and private donations. During Ms. Carlberg’s tenure as Administrator and Artistic Director, the HRCM series continued to grow its audience size and repertoire. Annual grant awards from the Greater Hartford Arts Council helped to present more challenging music, and provided repeat concert opportunities at the then newly built Hartford Seminary.
HRCM draws its musical talents from Connecticut musicians who have proven to be the state’s brightest professionals. A collective résumé includes the Hartford Symphony, New Haven Symphony, Waterbury Symphony, New Britain Symphony, and the Coast Guard Band. Visiting guests also served an important part of HRCM’s presentations over the years. Guests include guitarist Daniel Salazar, tenor Peter Harvey, baritone Chai-lum Yueh, violinist Pedro Pinyol, guitarist Judith Handler, and harpist Victoria Drake. Over the more than one hundred public concerts, three stand out as exceptional milestones in HRCM’s history: three performances of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with a reading from Revelations by Reverend Richard Taylor in 1982, a world premiere of Howard Rovics’ Songs on Chinese Poetry in 1983, and two full scale productions of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale with guest narrator, Robert J. Luurtsema, conductor Paul Phillips, and marionettist Dan Butterworth in 1995.
In September 2011, the Directors of Hop River Chamber Music began thinking about contributing to the chamber music literature by commissioning a new work. The Board agreed in February 2013 to proceed with this project, entrusting planning to David Vaughan and Gary Chapman. At a meeting in September, an intriguing proposal was put forward: commission a companion piece for Aaron Copland’s suite from his ballet Appalachian Spring, scored for 13 musicians. As some potential composers were approached, the board's enthusiasm swept aside initial misgivings about the cost of creating and performing such a work, which assumed more definite shape with a ballet scenario, “Fall in New England,” written by David Vaughan
The commission was awarded to Neely Bruce and the finished piece, “Fall in New England” was performed in July of 2018 and again in September of the same year at Wesleyan University.
Since its beginnings, the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Andover, CT has generously offered its sanctuary for rehearsals and concerts. The original Meeting House, built in 1748, burned down and this present, historic building, dating back to 1833, provides a perfect setting for the performance of chamber music. Regular improvements to the church facilities over the years also benefited HRCM audiences. In the mid 1990’s, the installation of an air conditioning system provided a more comfortable environment of everyone and helped increase audience attendance. The purchase of a new Mason and Hamlin piano (with HRCM in mind!) in 2007 immeasurably improved the concert presentations. Each season, the church congregation and Board of Deacons willingly accommodate HRCM’s performance needs to rearrange the worship dais during the concert series’ three week period. HRCM board and musicians remain eternally grateful for this very generous accommodation!