Everybody growing up in the small town of Kingman, Kans., took piano lessons, Delores (Dee) Stevens, 83, explained, sitting at the table of her Chilmark home on a sunny summer morning. That was just what you did.
“I was so excited when I had my first lesson. I think I was about four,” Mrs. Stevens said. “They gave me this book of music, so I took it home and I started playing it, [going] page to page, and I did the whole book in the first couple of weeks.”
Piano lessons notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that not everybody in Kingman, Kans., is quite like Mrs. Stevens.
This summer marks the 43rd season of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society and its Summer Music Festival, both of which she co-founded. Mrs. Stevens is the festival’s pianist and will perform with four different groups this summer during the annual concert series. On Monday and Tuesday, July 22 and 23, the second concert of the series, featuring Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor, James Austin Smith, oboe, and Mrs. Stevens on piano, will take place.
Mrs. Stevens lives in Los Angeles with husband Jim when she is not on the Island. In L.A. she is the artistic director of Chamber Music Palisades, and was previously director of piano studies at California State University-Dominguez Hills and director of chamber music at Mount St. Mary’s College. She is a longtime trustee for The Recording Academy, best known as the directors of the Grammy awards. In February she was given the Living Legacy award by the Youth Music Foundation, where she has been director of chamber music for more than two decades. Composer John Williams, of Star Wars and Jaws fame, also received the honor.
“It’s kind of nice, they give the award to somebody who’s still working,” she said of the Living Legacy nod.
But it’s hard to reconcile the term “work” with Mrs. Stevens’ path.
“[Music] is a whole life that centers around creativity,” Mrs. Stevens said. And it takes you places, too. After graduating from the University of Kansas with her bachelor’s degree, where she studied piano with Bach authority Jan Chiapusso, she attended the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., before moving to Honolulu for her first jobs. She was a music teacher at the Punahou School and a violinist with the Honolulu Symphonic Orchestra. Once children Victoria and Paul were born, Mrs. Stevens gave up the violin to focus exclusively on piano.
In 1985 she premiered a piano piece by the modern composer John Cage during the Monday Evening Concerts series in Los Angeles. The piece, titled ASLSP, or As SLow aS Possible, had no notes, simply “directions” written on to the page. The page was like a piece of art, Mrs. Stevens said.
“I was into this piece. I could play whatever I want. Only I just sort of know the direction they’re going in . . . I played a half and hour on this one page.”
Not all compositions offer such flexibility, but performing chamber music also allows a musician to be more interpretive.
Chamber music, or compositions intended to be played by small groups, is so named because it has its roots in musicians playing in palace chambers. There is no conductor, as there is in symphonic music, nor large sections of instruments. No more than nine musicians will typically be in a chamber group, although groups of 13 members have participated in the Summer Music Festival. Chamber music is self-directed and collaborative, with each instrument part sharing equal billing in the composition.
“Every time I play, even if I play a Brahms trio [she estimates she has played hundreds], I always find something new, some new challenge. That’s the great thing about chamber music.
“You’re constantly trying to improve, trying to make it more musical, more virtuosic . . . and your moods change somewhat and your style changes somewhat over time,” she said. A piece she performed 20 years ago would sound different if she played it today, and that’s all part of the process.
“With chamber music, you don’t try to duplicate or copy somebody else. You want to put your own personal stamp on it.”
When the Chamber Music Society was founded 43 years ago, it consisted of two or three concerts at the Chilmark Community Center by the Montagnana Trio, a professional chamber music trio consisting of Mrs. Stevens, cellist Caroline Worthington and clarinetist John Gates. Mrs. Stevens played on a Steinway borrowed from Jim Norton and wheeled into the community center. Friends of the trio began to come to perform in the summer as well, and eventually a nonprofit organization was born. Concerts are still played at the community center, and the Old Whaling Church has been added as a venue.
“It is such a glorious place to do music,” Mrs. Stevens said of the church, which she described as having “perfect acoustics.”
“Not only does it sound good, but it looks good, too. It’s so beautiful.” The open windows mean you can hear buses go by outdoors on occasion, but “that’s a small price to pay.”
Last Monday evening Mrs. Stevens introduced the Harlem Quartet to the gathered audience at the Old Whaling Church for the first concert of the season — the lone concert for which she would not be festival pianist. The quartet performed selections from Haydn and Schubert, standbys of classical music, but also by current jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea.
“The lines of [musical] demarcation are breaking down, in my view,” Mrs. Stevens said. “That’s what’s exciting about music.” These days, she said, rather than the typical string quartet or piano trio playing chamber music, a group can consist of two percussionists, or a guitarist and a flute player, or “most any kind of combination.”
“We’re not bound to the Germanic, Romantic [styles] of music. It’s much more broad than it ever was.” New music is especially prominent now. Mrs. Stevens is often involved in the process of commissioning works and performs new music whenever possible, relishing the challenge of taking on something for the first time.
Her main challenge as artistic director for the Summer Music Festival is cultivating a balanced summer lineup. Two concert series this summer feature singers and another is a brass quintet. She wants to appeal to and inspire all audiences, and to let younger generations know of the possibilities of the music world.
Over the years, a Mozart piece for piano quartet has appeared the most on the festival programs.
“It’s fabulous music and it’s something that we all want to play, and the audience loves,” Mrs. Stevens said of the Mozart. “But I don’t repeat things too often. There’s a lot of music out there.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society concerts this week are Monday, July 22, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, and Tuesday, July 23, at the Chilmark Community Center. Both shows begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 or $30 with Our Island Card. Students are free. Visit mvcms.org.