In the Bowers Program at Lincoln Center, Early-Career Classical Musicians Perform Alongside Experienced Musicians | Playbill

Classic Arts Features In the Bowers Program at Lincoln Center, Early-Career Classical Musicians Perform Alongside Experienced Musicians

A look at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's prestigious three-year residency.

Bowers Program artist Sihao He (right) performs with violinist Kristin Lee and pianist Wu Qian, both of whom are alums of the Bowers Program.

Attentive readers of the program listings or artist roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center may have noticed references to CMS’s Bowers Program, a residency for outstanding early-career musicians. Formerly known as CMS Two from its founding in 1996, it was renamed The Bowers Program in the 2018–19 season, in recognition of generous support from Ann S. Bowers; it receives additional support from theMarion F. Gold in Charitable Fund and the Colburn Foundation.

The three-year residency provides opportunities for selected musicians to take part in every aspect of CMS’s activities—not only main stage concerts in Alice Tully Hall, but also education, family, and community engagement programs as well as touring programs around the world. The program serves as a vital artery for bringing new artists on to the roster. In fact, 61 percent of CMS’s artist roster, and 48 percent of those playing this season, are either current or former members of the program (in either of its appellations).

CMS Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han describe it with a fitting metaphor: “Becoming a member of The Bowers Program is like joining a family: there’s a place for you at the table; the music is the food that we share, and you sit next to new colleagues all the time. And like the youngest at the table, the future of the family is in your hands.”

The current Bowers artists, for whom the program began in the 2021–22 season and continues through 2023–24, are violinists Stella Chen, Richard Lin, and James Thompson; violist Timothy Ridout; and cellist Sihao He. Members of the program are not always individuals; in the past, individual musicians and ensembles auditioned in staggered years, but beginning with the next Bowers class (2024–27), all auditions will take place together and will occur only every three years. At the time of writing, the next group of Bowers musicians have already auditioned and will be announced soon.

“Part of the magic of the program,” says violinist James Thompson, “is that it’s performance and learning experience all at once—an opportunity to play so many types of chamber music with people who have been doing it for such a long time.”

Thompson has fond memories of his first performance with CMS, a digital concert broadcast from the Rose Studio in March 2021, before in-person concerts had returned. He played the Mozart Divertimento in E-flat major, K. 563, with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, both of whom had performed the piece before. “When you’re a student,” he says, “you usually have a semester to put together a chamber music work. This was one of my first high-level professional experiences having to put together a huge, imposing piece of music that I had not learned before in the space of a few days. It really was a crash course! And there’s no replacement for feeling what it’s like onstage with people who have done it so many times before at such a high level. Playing with them automatically makes you better, and I feel like I’ve grown so much as a musician.”

Cellist Sihao He recounts how one of his first performances as a Bowers artist was extraordinarily memorable. It took place outdoors, in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, in July 2021. For many in the audience, this was their first live concert since the beginning of the pandemic, and their appreciation was palpable in their commitment to staying despite sudden rain. “I remember during the Schumann Piano Quartet,” says Mr. He, “it started pouring! But a lot of the audience didn’t leave; they sat there with little umbrellas and just listened.”

Thompson talks about how his approach to preparing music has changed dramatically since joining the program. When playing a piece with others who know it well, he says, it’s important not only to learn one’s own part, but also to practice being flexible in the approach to decisions like phrasing and vibrato. “When you sit down in a group, someone is inevitably playing something with a little bit different sound color or tone, and you want to be able to match that right away without having to go back and practice it differently.” He has also found that one of the most noticeable characteristics of playing in a top-tier professional group—as opposed to a group of very good music students—is that the stronger the players, the less talking there is in rehearsal. “Because everyone comes with such great ideas and has great awareness of what’s going on around them, after playing the piece a few times those ideas coalesce into one interpretation without us having to parse and talk through every detail.”

The program is highly selective and has a formidable audition process. “It was easily the most intense audition of my life,” says Thompson, “but it was really, really interesting, and unlike any other audition I’ve done.” Applicants submit video recordings for the initial round, and some are then invited for live auditions in the Rose Studio, during which they perform in chamber ensembles with current CMS musicians who also serve on the jury. They are given only a few weeks to prepare the repertoire in order to simulate the fast pace at which roster musicians have to master challenging music. 

“It’s not just about how well you can play your own instrument,” says He. “It’s about how well you can make music with other people.” During the audition, Mr. Thompson felt a remarkable ease with the ensemble that settled in almost instantly: “I remember being nervous about the process, but actually feeling quite comfortable on stage; surrounded by such great musicians, it’s hard to not feel comfortable. Once it got started, it was not as scary as I thought, and it was nice to see some familiar faces and be able to play with people while I was auditioning.”

One of the artists’ favorite aspects of the program is how thoroughly integrated they are into the fabric of CMS activities. “The only distinction between a Bowers artist and another CMS artist,” says Thompson, “is the little asterisk next to your name in the program. It’s a great opportunity to jump-start your career.” He adds that his affiliation with CMS has allowed him to meet many other artists and presenters around the country with whom he has started to form independent relationships. He concurs: “We’re not seen as the ‘young people in the program.’ It’s designed for us to be as involved as the ‘real’ CMS artists. I’ve never felt left out.”

Both musicians agreed that one of the most valuable facets of the program is its opportunities for mentorship.

This is true, Thompson says, “both musically, and with the others kills that come along with being a professional musician: the organization, the knowledge, the ability to present and speak publicly. These are all things that David and Wu Han treat with such importance, and they give you opportunities over and over again to develop these skills and put them on display in the larger music scene.” 

For He, “It’s not just that I’ve learned how to be a better musician. I also feel so involved with everything, and I get advice from the staff on all kinds of practical matters. They always want to help me; it feels like a family.”

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