Orion Chamber Ensemble/ Credit: Axie Breen Photography

At most concerts, few people can afford the perks of VIP admission. But when the Needham Concert Society performs, everyone is a VIP and can chat with the musicians, get premier seats and enjoy free refreshments. 

In the front row at the November concert, Carol Thomas and Marty Jacobs sat with their son, Michael, and granddaughter Mia, 6, passing on a family tradition to a new generation. Over decades of concerts, Jacobs said he’s always been impressed.

“They always sound great,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have such quality players in town.”

Since 1976, the Needham Concert Society has given local audiences a convenient, affordable way to hear some of the region’s best chamber music players perform in an intimate setting with great acoustics. In four concerts this season performed in the light-filled sanctuary of Carter Memorial United Methodist Church, artistic director Ron Lowry brings together violinists, violists and pianists to play works by Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven, to name a few. Lowry, who raised two sons in Needham before moving to Framingham, is the principal cellist of the Boston Ballet Orchestra and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, as well as a frequent performer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

“What I really like is the relationship with the audience, which you get in a smaller setting,” Lowry said. “It’s incredibly gratifying to hear people come up afterwards and say, ‘I’ve never been to a classical concert and I really enjoyed it.’ Appreciation requires exposure, and I want to create opportunities for people to hear really high quality classical music.”

As the musicians bowed last month, the roughly 100 audience members erupted into applause and rose to a standing ovation. Lowry, violinist Peter Zazofsky, who lives in Needham, violist Noriko Futagami, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson beamed, a joy they seemed to feel despite the fact they’ve performed countless times.

Lowry said he has no trouble recruiting musicians to play in Needham because they all cherish the opportunity to play chamber music in a small setting the way composers intended it to be heard. He volunteers his time as artistic director and performer, and while the musicians are not pro bono, they’re also “not getting rich from it,” he said. Providing crucial support to the organization is a dedicated six- member volunteer board. 

“A working board is the way to keep costs down, and there’s a lot of administration involved with a nonprofit,” said board president Jane Knetzger, who has volunteered for 10 years. “It’s been fun working with such stellar people.”

In recent years, the board has expanded and improved the society website, online publicity, graphics and fundraising, and added composer and piece information to the concert program the audience receives. For the first time this spring, the society will hold a voice festival for vocal students, joining the longstanding festivals for piano and string students who live in Needham or study with a teacher in town. These festivals are free and open to the public and are part of an effort to foster music education and appreciation. 

Musicians Randall Hodgkinson, Peter Zazofsky, Noriko Futagami, Ronald Lowry/ Credit: Axie Breen Photography

“It’s so important for students to have opportunities to perform and to hear others,” Knetzger said. “You can come to appreciate classical music later in life, but you usually have to be introduced to it as a child or teenager.”

Decades ago, children heard classical music in Bugs Bunny, Popeye and Tom and Jerry cartoons and in Disney classics such as “Fantasia.” More recently, video game developers have used classical music to convey emotion and drama.

Lowry, whose parents were not musicians or classical music lovers, might never have picked up a cello if a music education program in Kentucky hadn’t selected his elementary school as a place to offer instruction. And after he heard the Guarneri String Quartet perform near his home in Kentucky, he knew he wanted to be a professional cellist.

“I already was playing enough to realize how incredible they were,” said Lowry, then 12. “It was thrilling.”

At last month’s concert, one of Lowry’s students, 9-year-old Sebastian Unglaub, watched him perform. 

“I want him to hear his teacher play,” said Sebastian’s mother, Naoko Sugiyama, a piano instructor at the New England Conservatory of Music. “The space is small, you feel connected to the musicians, and it has a very nice piano and good sound.”

In coming years, the Needham Concert Society and other arts groups in town are likely to benefit, as the town is developing the Arts & Culture Action Plan to foster and support arts and culture organizations. As a starting point, residents were invited to complete a survey about their interests and priorities and to participate in focus groups. The surveys will guide the town and a group of residents as they develop the plan.

Lowry said he would love to see more music presented in Needham, which could happen in Powers Hall, the renovated performance space in Town Hall. Currently, the only music there is the popular Great Hall Concert Series, which presents world-class musicians in a variety of genres over four concerts a season. The Needham Concert Society gave the inaugural concert 10 years ago attended by about 400 people who heard both professional and Needham High musicians. 

“It would be wonderful for the community if we had a central location where there were ongoing performances (of many musical genres),” Lowry said.

Days before the busy holiday season, during which he juggles performances of “The Nutcracker” and The Boston Pops, Lowry relished the after-concert reception. He and the other musicians and board members chatted with the audience in the church’s spacious entry hall around a table spread with refreshments. It was a simple gathering where everyone shared the gift of music. 

(The next concert, Piano Trio Masterpieces, is 3 p.m. Sunday, February 11 at Carter Memorial United Methodist Church. Tickets are $20 and free for all students.)

Jody Feinberg has lived in Needham since 1985 and was a reporter for The Patriot Ledger.

*This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 14.

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