The Chamber Arts Society of Duke University: A short history.

The Chamber Arts Society (CAS) is the oldest continually functioning Society for the performance of classical music at Duke University. A detailed account of its first fifty years of existence can be found in the brochure: Chamber Arts Society 1945-1995 by Leland Phelps, a former CAS director. Here we briefly summarize this history and update it to the present time.

The CAS was conceived in 1945 during an informal discussion among several Duke community members – faculty and spouses. The driving force for the creation was Ernest Nelson, Professor of Renaissance History. After the expected struggles with financing and support, the founders succeeded in establishing a successful routine of concert performances. They averaged five concerts per season, utilizing both some excellent local performers but also attracting groups of international recognition, such as the Pasquier Trio and the Hungarian String Quartet.

The concerts took place in a remarkable space known then as the East Duke Music room. As described by Leland Phelps, it is “a unique facility for chamber music because it permits an intimacy between performers and audience which an auditorium lacks.” However, with the increase in the audience from an original of 200 subscribers to about 400, the performances had to find a larger venue. In 1980 they were shifted to the new Reynolds Auditorium in the Bryan Center on the West Campus, which accommodates an audience of more than 600. After 23 successful years in that space, the Series again shifted in 2013 to a stunning new venue – the brilliantly renovated Baldwin Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus. With its bright decor and astonishingly fine acoustics, this hall has delighted both performers and audiences in the extreme.

Having served as the Society’s leader for 18 years, Ernest Nelson retired from the post in 1963, and sponsored Leland Phelps, Professor in the German Department, to become the new Director of the CAS. Dr. Phelps presided successfully over 16 years of the Society’s growth and then, in 1979, turned the reins over to the highly competent Ruth Blum. Mrs. Blum, aided by English professor George Williams, succeeded in getting the East Music Room renamed in the honor of Ernest Nelson. It was under her organization that the Series moved from the Ernest Nelson Room to the Bryan Center. She was consistently able to schedule five concerts each year of the highest quality, attracting the world’s most illustrative artists – like the Juilliard String Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio and the Tokyo String Quartet – over and over again.

At the end of the 1999–2000 season, Ruth Blum in turn retired, to be succeeded by Robert Bryant, Professor of Mathematics. Professor Bryant continued to achieve the expected high standards and expanded the Series repertoire to include more 20th and even 21st century works. He also had By-Laws created for the Society, which , amongst other matters, legislated the successorship for the Director’s post by the creation of the post of Associate Director. His Directorship was cut short, in 2007, by his departure for The University of California at Berkeley. He returned to Duke six years later, where he rejoined the Advisory Board in the position of Associate Director.

The first Associate Director, selected in 2007, was Professor George Gopen, from Duke’s English Department and Law School. With the departure of Dr. Bryant, Dr. Gopen automatically became the next Director, once confirmed by the Advisory Board. He has expanded the Series first from five concerts to six, then from six to seven, and finally from seven to eight, while not increasing the subscription price for the audience. The quality of the concerts remains at the highest level possible, with constant visits from the world’s outstanding string quartets – like the Emerson, the Takacs, the St. Lawrence, the Artemis, the Pavel Haas, and the Hagen – as well as the world’s finest piano trios, wind quintets, and all other forms of chamber music groups.

There is presently an Advisory Board with eight members, drawn from several parts of the University.

Although at the beginning the CAS was an organization independent of the University, its financial operations were formally taken over by the University in 1985. They were administered at that time by Ms. Susan Coon, the Director of the Duke Office of Cultural Affairs. In 1998, that office was transformed into The Duke Institute of the Arts, directed by Ms. Kathy Silbiger.  Both Susan Coon and Kathy Silbiger contributed significantly to the success of the CAS. That Institute was itself transformed, in 2006, into highly successful Duke Performances series, whose Executive Director is Aaron Greenwald. Mr. Greenwald and Dr. Gopen, aided by the Advisory Board, work together to ensure the continuing success of the Chamber Arts Society.

A note on the 20th anniversary celebration with a list of compositions performed until 1965 is provided. Also a list of the CAS performances since its beginning in 1945 until the present time can be viewed here.

Horst Meyer

George Gopen

Four amateurish, spontaneous, unrehearsed movie clips of performing  artists in 1990 and '91, can be viewed here.