It’s a chilly Monday night and there’s a line of people around the corner of W 93rd St. and Broadway, waiting outside the colorful but closed doors of a red brick-and stone church. These people aren’t waiting in line for a soup kitchen, a hot meal, or a clothing drive; they’re waiting for music.
Music Mondays, a program of Advent Lutheran Church, presents a diversity of sought-after chamber musicians like the Brentano String Quartet, violinist Jennifer Koh, and even cabaret singer Ute Lemper, in nine free concerts each year, a small-but-mighty organization that celebrates its twentieth season this year and has been under the artistic leadership of pianist Aaron Wunsch since 2006. When Wunsch took on Music Mondays, an average of 58 guests came to each concert. By the 2018-19 season, an average of 277 guests attended each concert, frequently with lines forming up to an hour before each performance began – rain, wind or shine. Guests may reserve entry through Eventbrite and while some seats are reserved for donors of the organization, most are given away on a first-come, first-served basis. In the 2018-19 season – the last full season before the pandemic – a total of 2,497 guests packed into concerts throughout the season, often with standing room only available by the concert’s start. Wine receptions followed the concert and audience members were invited to mingle with the musicians, creating a happy buzz (in more ways than one) following each performance. Music Mondays has cultivated a growing and devoted following among Upper West Siders who are eager to hear high quality artists perform in the intimate space of Advent Lutheran.
The roster of musicians is just as impressive as the audience numbers. Award-winning ensembles and performers from across the US and even abroad have played at Music Mondays, squeezing MM into their busy schedules playing in some of the country’s most renowned venues. Ensembles such as SO Percussion, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Imani Winds, and Roomful of Teeth have performed at Music Mondays, and individual artists have included Caroline Shaw, Claire Chase, Miranda Cuckson, Kate Soper, Anthony McGill, and Conrad Tao. String quartets including the Miró Quartet, Parker Quartet, Daedalus Quartet, Jack Quartet, Aizuri Quartet, Dover Quartet, PUBLIQuartet, and Brooklyn Rider have all performed at Music Mondays – many of these groups, more than once. The roster of artists at Music Mondays is, frankly, incredible. And this is all for free.
“We believe this music is for absolutely anyone and everyone – it uplifts us and brings us together, as a community,” says Artistic Director, Aaron Wunsch. Audience members and artists alike treasure the intimacy of the church – it can seat 300 when it’s packed to the gills – and most ensembles speak to the audience about programming choices and repertoire during the performance. Each program is carefully curated by Wunsch and the musicians, and often Music Mondays presents unique collaborations among artists who don’t perform together elsewhere. In 2019, violinist Jennifer Koh and bass-baritone Davóne Tines pioneered a moving and personal program around the themes of immigration and home; in 2020, fiddler player Mark O’Connor, his wife Maggie O’Connor, and PUBLIQuartet collaborated magnificently ending with a large-scale improvisation. The string quartet Brooklyn Rider presented a premiere of a new song cycle by composer Nico Muhly, sung by tenor Nicholas Phan to a packed house before the pandemic. “Music Mondays never fails to amaze me with its creative and diverse programs – from traditional repertoire to contemporary compositions that I have never heard,” shares one audience member. During the pandemic, Music Mondays moved online – as did many organizations – and artists were deeply grateful for a chance to perform during such difficult times, even for an audience of twelve invited guests and the recording team. Music Mondays remains as deeply committed to its artists as to its audiences, and managed to present all nine concerts in the year following the pandemic, without a single cancellation.
Music Mondays and Advent worked together to raise funds to purchase a Steinway piano for the church and the concert series a few years ago, and in May 2022, the organization experimented with renting a temporary stage to help improve sight-lines for the audience. After an overwhelmingly positive response, MM will rent one for most of its 22-23 season concerts, and programming for the twentieth anniversary year is as robust as ever. The Claremont Trio opened the year, playing for a full house and a well-deserved standing ovation after an heartfelt presentation of Gershwin, Bernstein, Judd Greenstein, and Brahms. The season continues with artists such as the baroque “rock band” Ruckus; Alice Hall Moran with The Hands Free Collective and Caroline Shaw; the Calidore Quartet with Bridget Kibbey; clarinetist Anthony McGill, and more.
“The Music Monday performances are a marvel. I appreciate the professional manner in which the events are so smoothly conducted, and yet the venue is always so friendly and welcoming,” shares another regular MM attender. “I can barely imagine the amount of work and dedication it takes to continue producing these extremely high quality events, so consistently, year after year. . . Music Mondays is a tremendously valuable service to the community. It is always such a good feeling to see so many people filling the church every month, even in terrible weather! The city has many resources, but MMs is unique. It presents an astonishing range of programs that are informative, inspirational, uplifting, engaging, and always inventive; and free of charge! We would not be able to afford comparable events at the midtown venues, and we’re very grateful …”
Audience members come from around the block and around the borough to hear the Music Mondays concerts at Advent Lutheran. While it’s not uncommon to see a line of people waiting outside a church in New York City for food, the church that is home to Music Mondays offers food for the soul to the people in its Monday night line. And it is music worth waiting for. Come and see for yourself! The full season is available here.