Countertenor Gus Mercante trained at the renowned University of North Texas College of Music, then went to Augsburg, Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. But the Pike Creek native and University of Delaware alum says he couldn’t wait to come home to Wilmington.
“Delaware people, Delaware musicians especially, always talk about wanting to get out, get out, get out,” he says. “I was thrilled to get back.”
This summer, Mercante is helping bring back a Delaware musical fixture—a chamber music festival. He will manage and perform in the Serafin Summer Music, a festival of eight themed concerts offered by the Serafin Ensemble June 20–June 30 at The Music School of Delaware in Wilmington, featuring 18 accomplished performers in all.
“There’s an element of pride,” Mercante says, “because I want people to know that you don’t just live in Delaware as a music lover because it’s close to Philly and New York and D.C. You can live in Delaware as a music lover and get great music in Delaware.”
The Serafin Ensemble is filling a void left when the Delaware Chamber Music Festival ended its 32-year run in June 2017.
“We always want more people to experience the joy and the passion of music, and in particular chamber music,” says Kate Ransom, artistic director of Serafin Ensemble and Serafin Summer Music. “Come get fired up.”
An ethos of esprit
Fifteen years after the Serafin String Quartet debuted in Carnegie Hall, the group is debuting again as the Serafin Ensemble. Their first performance came May 19 at the Milton Theatre.
The evolution has enabled Serafin to add double bass, piano, flute, horn and voice to its artistic roster.
That’s definitely not standard fare, Mercante points out. But it fits with the Serafins’ drive to unite a diverse set of artists in presenting a diverse collection of masterworks, both the well- and the lesser-known.
“We’re bringing together artists who have an esprit, who like one another and who are really, really excited about the opportunity to come and spend time together making music,” says Ransom.
The bonds of friendship and artistic collaboration may receive their ultimate expression in the Serafins’ June 22 concert, Friends and Mentors, which features works by Niels Gade, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Ernő Dohnányi.
While Schumann once used his pal Gade’s name as a musical motif (G–A–D–E) in a song, Brahms’ C minor Scherzo, which is on the June 22 program, takes the prize for musical homage to one’s buddies. The Scherzo is a movement from the F–A–E Sonata composed collaboratively by Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich for their friend, violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim’s personal motto was “frei aber einsam” (free but lonely). Each movement of the sonata is organized around the notes F–A–E, though Brahms, a noted practical joker, chose a key signature that included neither A nor E, but rather A-flat and E-flat.
The meeting ground
Like the artists themselves, who hail from Oklahoma, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, New York and Delaware, the Serafin Summer Music program represents a broad array of regions and styles.
“That mutuality—that meeting ground—is the most exciting and gratifying place in the world,” says Ransom.
The festival also features composers who aren’t as well represented in chamber music repertoire, such as Bedřich Smetana, Michael Hayden, Max Reger, Jean-Marie Leclair and Gabriel Fauré. (Though fans looking for greatest hits needn’t worry – the June 28 concert, for example, is dedicated to the “three Bs,” Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.)
“Whenever I collaborate with the Serafins, it’s always a piece that I wanted to play but haven’t had an opportunity to yet,” says clarinetist Christopher Nichols, a professor at the University of Delaware and reservist with the 380th Army Band in Richmond, Virginia.
Nichols, who first worked with the Serafin String Quartet in 2014, will be joining the ensemble to play Schumann’s “Fairy Tales” (June 22) and Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (June 29), a piece with Armenian flair that he describes as “stunningly romantic.” Both are performance firsts for him.
Along with June 29’s Russian Romp, the Serafin Summer Music Festival will also offer regional-themed programs Bohemian Gems (June 20), Out of Bavaria (June 23) and French Foray (June 27).
One of those Bohemian Gems is Antonin Dvořák’s Terzetto in C Major for two violins and viola, which violist Luke Fleming says might be the piece he’s most excited to play.
“To me, it’s the definition of chamber music,” says Fleming, founder and artistic director of the Manhattan Chamber Players and creator of the outreach/mission-centric Crescent City Chamber Music Festival in New Orleans. Dvořák, himself a violist, wrote the piece to play with his friend on first violin and his friend’s student on second violin.
“It’s not some stodgy, concert hall, get-dressed-up-in-your-tuxedos-and-sit-still-and-applaud-when-you’re-supposed-to kind of thing,” Fleming says. “It’s about friends coming together to play music with this atmosphere of mutual respect and camaraderie.”
The Serafin Summer Music Festival arises in part thanks to the support of The Music School of Delaware, of which Ransom is president and CEO, and the University of Delaware’s Department of Music. Other sponsors include Jacobs Music Company, Harry’s Savoy Grill, Tonic Bar and Grille, Delaware Today, WDEL and Gatehouse Media Delaware.
But no story about the festival would be complete without mention of Dr. William Stegeman.
Cofounder of Jackson ImmunoResearch Laboratories Inc., Stegeman decided to take up violin close to his 60th birthday. He started taking lessons at The Music School in 2001, with Ransom as his instructor.
He went on to become the single biggest supporter in the school’s 95-year history and serve on its board. He was unable to comment for this story.
“His ardent passion for the joy of music is something, through his philanthropy, he has shared with others,” says Ransom. “He’s a music maker.”
The Serafin Summer Music festival will feature eight themed concerts over two weeks. All performances will be held at The Music School of Delaware, Wilmington Branch, 4101 N. Washington Street, Wilmington, DE. Concertgoers can get a season subscription for $135 which covers all 8 performances or a four-pack of tickets for $70. Single tickets are $20. Purchase tickets by visiting www.brownpapertickets.com or calling (302) 762-1132. For more information, please visit www.serafinensemble.org/summer.