Connections over the centuries of music

Tim Merton and Jennifer Morsches talk about the Sarasa Ensemble, building community with music, and their unique musical instruments

PUTNEY — The Commons sat down recently with Tim Merton and Jennifer Morsches to discuss the Sarasa Ensemble's 24th concert season, the chamber music group's upcoming Beethoven and Brahms program [story, this issue], and their unique cellos.

Here's an excerpt from their conversation:

Victoria Chertok: Let's start with National Arts and Humanities Month. Why are the arts important, and what can we do to encourage students to participate and enjoy them fully?

Tim Merton: For us especially, the arts are important because they're a way of communicating, a universal language. That's one of the reasons that I always wanted to bring music to those who didn't have access to it. Like in the prison system and some of the places we've been, like India and Cuba.

I like the challenge of offering that to different audiences and having them understand it and appreciate it.

Jennifer Morsches: The arts are overlooked in schools often because of kids trying to go to the next level of higher education or vocational school. If we let go of the arts in general, we are a much poorer and weaker society. We don't have that thing that binds us together. At the Epiphany School in Boston, the students didn't realize they have innate musical talent; we would play something, and then they found they could actually understand the language. The arts are a mode of expressing oneself, and we can never give up. It's too important for all of us.

V.C.: Sarasa began over two decades ago, highlighting music from the 17th through 21th centuries using period and modern instruments. What inspired you to start Sarasa?

T.M.: One reason I started Sarasa is that I was fed up playing in other groups and other orchestras. I wanted to decide who I could play with, and it wasn't long after I was living in England. We have quite a few English players who work with us. That is the way the music world works.

Your friends are who you work with if you have a choice. Now that Jennifer is working with us, we have her music connections, too.

We've been lucky to know some remarkable musicians, famous singers, and players of all kinds. These last few years, since Jennifer has been part of Sarasa, we have explored 21st-century music more and have had some commissions written for us.

J.M.: Sarasa aims to show connections over the centuries of music. Brahms very much looked backward in his music; he loved the Baroque era and he loved the Renaissance. Beethoven is so forward thinking as a composer, he changed all the boundaries. It's nice to put those together.

Jeanie [Schneider] is a good friend of mine; we studied at Stony Brook [University] together, and Eric [Thomas] I met when I was a teenager at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music.

You can make music with your colleagues in rehearsal, but more than anything, what makes a performance special is the audience. Those people sitting there in the audience, you can feel the energy.

V.C.: What is the meaning of “Sarasa”?

J.M.: Sarasa is named after Saraswathi Natarajan, a South Indian educational activist who founded the Bapagrama Educational Center in Bangalore, India. Sarasa visited and performed at this free, inter-caste, co-educational, secular school for the rural poor in 1999. “Sarasa” is also the diminutive of Saraswathi, the divine power deity of the full essence of the Artistic.

V.C.: Sarasa has presented over 165 free presentation concerts and 58 residencies at teen detention centers in the Boston metropolitan area. How did that outreach start?

T.M.: When I decided to start a chamber music group, I decided that part of it would have an outreach program, because I went to visit a friend of mine who was teaching at Sing Sing [Correctional Facility] in New York and she asked me to go and play for the guys who were in that program. That just blew me away.

These guys were so focused. They were right there with it and had the most amazing questions and appreciated it so much - it was eye-opening.

We're based in Cambridge, and I tried to get into the adult prison system there but kept running up against the wall, so I went to teen detention centers and they said, “We'd love it.”

We have presentations where we do one hour of some of the music from the concerts and then talk to them. We get them to sometimes rap for us. We also just be with them as people - they have a pretty dark existence in those places, and they appreciate so much what we do. It opens their eyes to music and is pretty inspiring.

We also do residencies, which are more involved. We have two singers, two on cello, and a keyboard player. We do three visits, and we really get to know them. We perform for them and start to do group singing, drumming, poetry, and prose. The last day we have a performance. It gives them a way to express themselves. They want to know all about our lives.

We do these residences in the summer, about five presentations. Our musicians have never been in incarceration units before, and they always come out of it saying that it was a meaningful experience. It makes an impression on them as well.

J.M.: The teens really are street smart - they can suss out something if it's not authentic. They were interested in how Tim and I met. They can always tell who is leading the group. We get them to conduct sometimes, we get them motivated to show something, and we encourage them. It's always a very uplifting experience for us. You just never know what it will make them think of.

V.C.: Congratulations on your Early Music America award this year.

J.M.: The Epiphany School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a free independent school for financially disadvantaged families, was eager to engage children with classical music. Tim and I had gone to a gala arts performance at the school. We were interested in trying to help guide these children before they fell into the cracks of gang violence, often ending up at youth detention centers.

I thought our program on female Baroque composers, and women who had been overlooked in general, would be an interesting topic.

Women have had a prominent role in music, even in the 17th century. For instance, Francesca Caccini was as famous as Beyoncé in her day. Music history books, often written by men, led to a lack of scholarship on female composers and their music.

Music manuscripts by women often ended up lost or overlooked - hence, their music was less well-known. It takes a lot of dedicated research to unearth and retrace the lives of these women. I thought this particular program would work well with the young students at Epiphany.

V.C.: You've had a long connection with the Brattleboro Music Center. How did that partnership begin?

T.M.: I taught cello at the BMC when it was in someone's house for years, so I have a relationship going way back. We've been one of their guest season artists for a few years now. We're doing all five of our concerts there this year. It's like home for us.

J.M.: BMC is keeping the vitality of music alive in the community here, and that is not easy. The BMC was great during the pandemic, allowing us to perform there for vastly small, socially distanced audiences, but it was wonderful!

We were able to perform throughout Covid because of their willingness to keep music alive during this difficult period. We wore masks and tested, and we had smaller masked audiences.

Playing live music really helped us. We continue to film our concerts so people can livestream them and listen from their homes.

V.C.: Let's talk about your cellos. I heard they were made in the 1700s - which is incredible!

T.M.: Mine has a bit of a story, which is related to the BMC. I was at a concert 35 years ago, and one of the audience members was Bernie Scholtz of Townshend. I heard him talking to someone about a cello he had in his closet, which belonged to his mother, and my ears perked up.

Somehow, I got into the conversation, and he knew I was a cellist. “Would you like to come and take a look at it?” he asked.

I visited him and immediately had a connection with his cello. I played it, and then he could sense something special.

He said, “It's not good for it to sit here; so if you'd like to play it and will pay for its insurance, I'd be happy for you to have it.”

I'm still playing his cello. He died some years ago and he left it to his daughter, Ingrid, who continued with this loan. This year, she said it was time for her to sell it to me, and I bought it.

I love that cello. I use this cello for everything: as a baroque cello, and as a modern one. I put on different strings and use different bows.

It was made in 1750, I believe. Stringed instruments didn't really improve much beyond that era. The cello has a Tononi label in it, even though it's probably some other maker. No one knows where it was made. It's not a famous cello, but it sounds amazing.

Bernie and I became really good friends; we would often have lunch together. He told me that his family had to leave Germany because of the Nazis - he was Jewish. My father was also Jewish, and they were both from Frankfurt, Germany. So it was just an amazing connection. They might have known each other's families in Germany.

J.M.: I have three cellos from when I lived in London for over 20 years. My modern cello is French, Jacquet Gand, Mirecourt, built in 1896. I've had it since I was 16 years old. My father bought it for me, and while it's nothing special, it's my voice. I haven't been able to let go of this instrument.

I also have an original Baroque cello, Anonymous from the Southern Tyrol, made in 1725. And I have a five-string piccolo cello that is a very special instrument. It's French, made in 1733, and is in its original condition.

It's amazing to have these instruments.

V.C.: Thank you both so much for this inspiring conversation!

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