Having great chamber music easily accessible a couple of times a week in town is greeted as the natural order of things. But it was hardly inevitable, and is largely thanks to one man: Anthony P. Checchia, founding artistic director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Checchia's modesty has obscured the scale of his feat; PCMS, now 30 years old, is presenting about 60 concerts per season.
Checchia's fans finally caught up with him Thursday night. They filled the Perelman Theater to hear speeches, stand for an ovation in his honor, and cheer board chairman Jerry G. Rubenstein when he thanked Checchia for building "arguably the greatest chamber music series in the U.S."
No one is likely to argue. Checchia, 85 and semiretired, is getting a bronze plaque on Broad Street's Walk of Fame, a Philadelphia Music Alliance representative announced. That's a fine civic nod, but Checchia's more meaningful marker of legacy was on stage. PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen and pianist Jonathan Biss assembled artists and repertoire to invoke connections.
Pianist Richard Goode was there, in wonderful form, and it's strange to think that Checchia has been presenting Goode, this wise old man of the keyboard, since Goode was 16.
Goode has developed a meaningful relationship on the PCMS stage with the young soprano Sarah Shafer, and they, along with superb clarinetist Anthony McGill, performed Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 965. More resonances: The piece reached its idealized form sung by Benita Valente, Checchia's wife and Shafer's teacher at Marlboro Music. Shafer made it her own, especially in the second section, where spring was an almost unbearable delight.
Light followed darkness by preceding the song with Schubert's Fantasy in F Minor, D. 940, for four hands. Goode took the secondo part, Biss primo, and it was fascinating to hear how naturally two different pianists can accommodate each other stylistically. Biss' handling of the grace notes in the piece warranted a thesis on how elegance can grow out of complexity.
There was a funny modesty about the evening. No one mentioned the names PCMS has brought here over the years - the string quartets Guarneri and Arditti, pianists Radu Lupu and András Schiff, singers Hermann Prey and Frederica von Stade, not to mention all the ineffable moments of performer-listener communion over Schubert lieder and Beethoven sonatas.
Instead, quality spoke for itself at the fête. You could hear it in the sophisticated phrasing violist Misha Amory brought to the Dvorák Piano Quintet in A Major with Biss and the Brentano Quartet. It was in the sparkling unanimity of Haydn's Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Hob:XV29, played by Biss, violinist Mark Steinberg, and cellist Peter Wiley.
Checchia has been the city's artistic north star, a guide to talent of extremely high quality without the flash or hype. This homage of very Checchian stuff seemed apt to the past, and reassuring of the future.