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Coffeehouse: How history is made

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By Kelly Dolejsi

The Los Alamos Coffeehouse was a tradition for years. When the concert series came to a close in 2008, music fans across the county collectively sighed in a minor key and when violinist Kay Newnam and the Los Alamos Arts Council announced the return of the Coffeehouse for a special, one-time event, it was like the moment when a favorite musical theme makes its comeback in a long, challenging composition.

But, despite how it felt, the Coffeehouse series was not always here. In fact, if it weren’t for an offhand comment from a student in Connecticut, it might never have started at all.

It all started in 1978 when Rosalie Heller’s daughter brought a friend home from Yale.

“Her friend had started a folk coffeehouse in Marblehead, Mass.,” Heller said. “I thought, ‘Wow – why couldn’t we do a classical coffeehouse?’”

There was a historical precedence for such a series. In the 18th century, Heller said, Bach and many other musicians and composers frequented Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, Germany.

The popular weekly concerts featured coffee, pastries and beer in addition to brand new compositions by some of the finest artists of the day. It was for this series that Bach composed his “Coffee Cantata.”

Like Zimmerman’s, the Los Alamos adaptation also had a cache of talent from which to draw.

“There were a lot of good musicians here,” Heller said. “Professors of music with advance degrees and lots of performances under their belts. I realized we were not doing as much for this community as we could.”

She collected a group of musicians who were to become the core of the Los Alamos Coffeehouse Series: Clarinetist Robert Wingert, who was in the area playing with the Santa Fe Opera; Patty (O’Rourke) Broxton, who played violin and viola; Tom O’Connor, current director of Santa Fe Pro Musica; violinist Kay Newnam; flutist Carol Redman; and cellist Vick Firlie.

Heller obtained coffees and teas from The Winery in Santa Fe and pies and tortes from the Palace Bakery. The musicians also made some of the desserts themselves and put up their own money to buy the refreshments and “el cheapo” cups. They secured several music students to work as servers and on April 7, 1979, the first Coffeehouse was held at Fuller Lodge.

“We had such a good time,” Heller said. “We had candles on the tables, and tables up in the balconies. It was gorgeous. And it was an immediate success. We did seven coffeehouses that first year.”

She added that one of the best parts was having the opportunity to share both their music and their musical knowledge with Los Alamos.

“Chamber music is very intimate,” she said. “People sit very close to the players. They can hear all the parts. And we’d always talk to the audience about the music, which people loved … I learned so much about chamber music I wouldn’t have known otherwise and we introduced the town to a lot of music they wouldn’t have heard otherwise.”

After the concerts, she said, albums featuring the pieces the group had played would be for sale at Gordon’s CDs.

Before long, lines at the door were stretching out into the parking lots, so the group began selling tickets in advance through the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, then located in Fuller Lodge.

“Little by little,” Heller said, “it got more and more complicated. And it was such a big thing – setting up, cleaning up, washing all the cups. We had to cut back to two a year.”

The group also hired Emma Madrid to help with the set up and clean up.

Over the years, many excellent performers took the stage. Cellist Laurel Rogers called Heller from New York when her husband accepted at job at the lab, asking whether there would be any work for her in Los Alamos.

There was – and it was work she thoroughly enjoyed.

In 2008, after Heller announced the end of the series, Rogers wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Alamos Monitor. “The concert series was truly amazing,” she wrote. “After moving away, I never found anything like it.”

A long list of other frequent performers includes Keith Lemons, professor of clarinet; Frank Bowen, professor of flute; Kim Fredenburgh professor of viola; pianist Landon Young; soprano Janice Felty; and violinist Carol Amado, the daughter of pianist Lillian Fuchs and niece of Joseph Fuchs, professor of violin at Yale.

Amado “imparted so much of what she had learned about chamber music,” Heller said. “She was a wonderful person … She died of leukemia, other members left – our work party was shrinking.”

Eventually, Heller said she had to call it quits.

But when the coffeehouse returns Aug. 21 for its special concert commemorating the 60th anniversary of Los Alamos, Heller said she’ll be there – only this time, in the audience.