Features

Concerted Effort

Community Music School’s Expansion Program Reaches a Crescendo
Eric Bachrach

Eric Bachrach says the Community Music School has faced — and overcome — daunting challenges since its inception.

The Community Music School of Springfield, which has battled considerable adversity since it was founded a quarter-century ago, has been hitting some high notes lately. Indeed, the school has completed more than $3 million in renovations to its facilities on State Street, and is set to show off its new performing hall.

It’s breathtaking. It’s a jewel. It’s magnificent.”

That’s how Eric Bachrach feels about the new performing hall at Community Music School of Springfield. “It’s quite miraculous and very emotional for me,” he said.

Bachrach opened the school in 1984 with a dream of providing democratic access to music education at a time when budget cuts handed a death note to arts education in public schools.

Today, CMSS is celebrating its silver anniversary and a $3.1 million renovation to its facilities at 127 State St. The school has created a grand new performance hall and the Prelude Preschool of the Arts, located on the third floor of the facility.

The projects are the result of a successful “Fanfare for the Future” capital campaign that presented an imposing challenge to board members after the economy took a downturn last fall. But a symphony of concerted efforts brought the goal to fruition, and on Dec. 10, the community is invited to the hall for a concert and program, which will honor Bachrach and celebrate the completion of the ambitious renovation and program expansion.

The performance kicks off a series of six concerts to be held next year. It will feature two noted talents: Metropolitan Opera tenor Russell Thomas, and pianist and UMass professor Estela Kersenbaum Olevsky.

“This is an extraordinarily exciting time for the music school and for Greater Springfield, and it’s fitting that Estela plays on the school’s silver anniversary,” said Jeanie Connor, director of development and communications for CMSS. “She and her late husband, violinist Julian Olevsky, gave the very first benefit concert for CMSS 25 years ago to raise money for scholarships.”

In this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at how a fledgling school matured into a vibrant arts center that has provided more than $1.25 million in scholarships to area families, added vitality to downtown Springfield, and is now poised to bring new life to the community via exciting performances and films.

Bachrach’s Overture

Bachrach grew up in a family where education was valued. He developed a love for the arts, especially music, at a young age and became a music teacher after graduating from college.

But he wanted to introduce his passion for music and social justice to far more than a classroom of students. After teaching in New York City schools, Bachrach came to Springfield and spent a year meeting with city officials and getting to know the area.

Although the idea of a community music school was welcomed, funding was a different matter, and the CMSS executive director and his board have faced daunting challenges from the beginning of their 25-year history.

“The school has gone through a lot of trials, tribulations, and economic challenges,” Connor said. “Eric founded the school in 1983, and it opened its doors to its first students in 1984. It took almost a year to get funding.”

At the time, the school was housed in the lower level of what is now German Gerena School on Birnie Avenue in a space dedicated to after-school programs.

The school remained at that location until September 1994, when a major water-main break in the North End flooded Gerena School. “The lower level was hit the worst, and all of our student records were lost,” Connor said. “Only one piano survived.”

For the next two years, CMSS operated out of churches that generously opened their doors to the nonprofit organization.

But the loss of the school’s home didn’t deter Bachrach from his calling. His board was equally inspired and tirelessly searched for a new base of operations. They were rewarded when Fleet Bank partnered with them and the music school took possession of an empty former bank building at 127 State St., along with a nearby parking garage. “The bank was reinvesting in the community by giving the music school a facility and a garage,” said Bachrach.

CMSS moved into the Art Deco building in the heart of downtown Springfield in 1996. The structure’s design presented a challenge, as it had been built as a bank, and CMSS had no money to make renovations. So faculty and adminstrators worked with what they had.

“Classes were held in offices, and executive bankers’ offices became music studios,” said Connor. “It’s functioned that way ever since.”

Working in Harmony

In 1999, CMSS board members launched their first capital campaign and raised about $2 million. The money was used to renovate the second floor of the building and create teaching studios there, as well as make structural improvements.

In 2003 they began developing a strategic plan for the next five years. “There were several goals,” said Connor. “One was the creation of a preschool focused on the arts. The other was to create a dedicated performance hall and to move the administrative offices to the fourth floor.” The plan also included improvements to the parking garage, scheduled to take place next summer.

Connor explained that the former bank had a large lobby with glassed-in offices lining its sides. “The space served as our main recital hall as well as providing access to and from lessons, even during recitals,” she said. “It was truly a multi-purpose room.”

But certainly not a place to stage major concerts or film festivals. “So the board undertook a $3.1 million capital campaign to accomplish its goals,” Connor said.

In May 2007, board members kicked off the campaign by making personal donations. “They were extraordinarily generous and not only set the pace for the campaign, but really laid a strong foundation for other funders,” she told BusinessWest.

Board members also began seeking support from major foundations, and in June 2008 they obtained a $300,000 Kresge challenge grant. The terms of the grant required them to reach their $3.1 million goal by Sept. 1, 2009.

It was questionable whether such an ambitious goal could be reached.

“Roll back the calendar to 2008; the economy had gone into a tailspin, and not only were we faced with the challenge of meeting this goal, but individual and corporate donors were feeling very compromised and nervous about giving,” said Connor. “By the end of 2008, we had raised close to $2 million, but we clearly had a long way to go.”

But they realized their goal, on their own, without any help from the city.

“It’s a true testament to the tenacity of our board members and their belief in what the music school accomplishes,” Connor said.

They had to borrow some money from their endowment, so they are still fund-raising as part of their plan was to increase the fund by $500,000. The interest from it is used to fund scholarships for the school’s 650 students, who play 30 different instruments.

The school’s Community Partnership Division serves an additional 750 children and youth through a variety of collaborations, which includes Department of Youth Services juvenile detention centers and other alternative settings.

Connor was so impressed by the board’s success that she purchased a copy of the children’s book The Little Engine That Could for each of the members. “They spent a great many waking hours talking to people, meeting with them, and telling them the story of the music school,” she said. “I thought they were a lot like the little engine. In 25 years they have never given up, through floods and all kinds of financial challenges.”

Bachrach agreed. “I would never minimize the difficult challenges we have had to vault and endure,” he said. “But underlying every aspect of the journey was a wonderful faculty and great board members who all understood the mission of what we are about — trying to democratize access to the arts.”

Corporate donors who contributed include the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, MassMutual Financial Group, the Beverage Family Foundation, the Steiger Foundation, the SIS Foundation, the Bardon Cole Foundation, the Nirenberg Foundation, as well as corporate support from Big Y and many local banks. CMSS also received $391,000 from the Mass. Cultural Council Foundation Facilties Fund.

Bass of Support

The first step in transforming the old bank into a center for the arts was to move the administrative offices to the rear of the first floor, which was accomplished in August 2008.

About three years ago, a tenant that occupied a portion of the fourth floor left, and the board decided to renovate the space and create more teaching studios there. Today, a dozen new studios have been built and share the space with the administrative offices.

The third floor has become a preschool for children ages 3 to 5, which opened in September 2008 with a new playground, two classrooms, and about three dozen students. Some pay full tuition, while others attend via scholarship aid, keeping with the school’s mission of providing equal access to the arts to everyone.

“It is the only full day arts program in Massachusetts, and every subject is infused with the arts,” said Connor. “Every child is learning to play an instrument, and two days each week there is a Suzuki guitar instructor and a violin instructor.” Guest artists also make appearances, and the children are learning dance and creative movement.

Bachrach’s love for music is reflected even in the playground, where large, artificial musical instruments stand tall. Storytellers visit the school, and renowned bassist Avery Sharpe and his trio spent a month there as artists in residence. They worked with the children and helped them compose a song and concert for their parents.

“There is an infusion of resources from larger institutions; it is extraordinary and really magical,” Connor said.

After those projects were completed, the next step was to create a performance hall worthy of Bachrach’s vision.

Visitors who walk through the front doors today will be drawn to the enormous pastel mural on the far wall, which extends onto the ceiling between the 175-person seating area and the stage.

It is a visionary work, which depicts the George Washington Bridge in New York City in the forefront, with buildings set in the rear. The artist added CMSS, the MassMutual Center, and a rendition of the old Springfield Safe Deposit and Trust Co. to the New York scene, which continues onto the ceiling.

“It’s like a Michelangelo,” said Bachrach. “This whole thing is breathtaking. We call it our own little Alice Tully Hall, which is part of the Lincoln Center.

“But the best is yet to come,” he insisted. “I truly believe the advent of this performing and film hall will provide the community with something no one can yet imagine. There will be a cultural pulse that adds to the vitality of State Street and all of the other cultural venues that exist downtown. It will make the community that much more healthy, animated, and vibrant.”

And so beautiful that Bachrach has to pinch himself every day when he walks inside.

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