04/03/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

First Mondays at the New England Conservatory

Before I came to NEC as a graduate student, I would make monthly pilgrimages from the not-so-distant land of Somerville to hear faculty perform in "First Mondays," a concert series curated by President Emeritus Larry Lesser. The programs featured works both familiar and eclectic, and of course there was the draw of seeing people whose names were familiar from radio broadcasts and CD covers. These Monday nights offered a small window into NEC's immense body of talent and I remember feeling incredibly privileged at the opportunity to hear some of my musical idols live. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with some of them about what makes First Mondays so special.

Lesser began the series in 1983 as a way to give structure to what started out as ad-hoc faculty chamber music concerts. Choosing Monday nights -- specifically the first Monday of each month -- was a way to insure the availability of players and an audience. Rather than receiving payment, all the performers go out for dinner afterwards. "Nobody plays on series unless they want to because nobody is paid to play on this series. It has to be the collection of like-minded people who enjoy one another's presence, enjoy the music, and enjoy playing in the hall," says Lesser. Occasionally, recent alumni and even students are invited to perform with the faculty members.

The mixture of faculty and alumni creates an intergenerational dialogue. Distinctions between "teacher" and "student" are erased; everyone's there to work and cooperate with each other, regardless of age. "Maybe someone has white hair but everyone listens to each other, so there's sharing across generations. It keeps us faculty young," Lesser adds.

In a past First Monday concert, cellist Paul Katz performed the Debussy Quartet with three outstanding young musicians: violinists Angelo Yu and Robyn Bollinger and violist Wenting Kang. Though he had performed the quartet countless times during his tenure with the Cleveland Quartet, Katz specifically asked to work with younger musicians this time around. He echoes Lesser's thoughts. "Playing with students keeps me young, keeps me fresh," Katz says. He explains that working and performing with students is his favorite way to teach. "There's a sense of community. I believe chamber music is a musical conversation -- players interacting just as two friends might interact. I look at making music the same way -- I play differently depending on who I'm with. When I play with students I try to make it as collegial as possible and take off my teacher hat. "

For the students, it was an exhilarating learning experience. Wenting Kang writes, "It was an exciting chance to play with wonderful musicians, share musical ideas, and react to each can learn so much from the others. Even though [Paul Katz] played this piece many times before, he was still very open to new ideas. He had specific ideas that really brought the whole group together in terms of sound and musical feeling." Kang adds, "and, he tells terrific stories all the time!"

Angelo Yu, an Artist Diploma candidate at NEC, agrees. "[First Mondays] gives young players like us such a priceless opportunity to work with great artists like Paul Katz. Simply by playing with a faculty member you can learn so much." He adds, "The experience of playing with Mr. Katz is something very special to me. His unique artistic personality and special sound had such a strong influence on us."

There's a tradition in classical music of learning via participation. Katz recalls his experiences at the Marlboro, one of the nation's premiere chamber music festivals. "When I was a student I played with people 40 or 50 years my senior-- the Budapest Quartet, Rudolf Serkin. Even though they were older than me, in a chamber group it becomes a democracy," Katz says. Lesser, too, took part in this tradition during his studies at USC: "I was lucky to have great opportunities with Heifetz and Piatigorsky -- to make music with people who were my heroes. The idea of conveying and continuing a tradition through the direct contact of making music is a very powerful way of teaching or of mentoring. We're still doing the same thing."