Downtown Music: Westchester’s “Oasis of Art and Culture”

A historical White Plains establishment at the center of the county’s art scene


























Photo Courtesy of Downtown Music

In 1988, Timothy Lewis, music director of Grace Church, was given a $5,000 budget and asked to develop an arts program to balance the soup kitchen and housing services of the 180-year-old landmark church at the corner of Church and Main Streets in White Plains. Little did Lewis know that, under his leadership as artistic director, his labor of love would evolve into an independent nonprofit performing arts organization with its own 501(c)(3) status, featuring a full spectrum of classical music, chamber concerts, jazz, Broadway favorites, and world music for a dedicated following. We chatted with Lewis about Downtown Music and his hopes for its future. 

How does Downtown Music live up to its description as an oasis of art and culture in the heart of White Plains?
Downtown Music is the most extensive source of regularly scheduled musical programming in White Plains. The programs, which feature internationally recognized musicians, are top quality, yet affordable, and give those attending a relaxing, musical midday break in a beautiful, soothing setting. 

What sets Downtown Music apart from other music organizations in the area?
Downtown Music is unique. Our Wednesday lunchtime concerts, scheduled between September and May, are free and available to everyone. People who work in the area, retirees, parents with young children, and local school groups all take advantage of these midday, midweek programs. Our Sunday afternoon concerts are celebrated for their musical diversity. This emphasis on musical excellence, combined with low cost and easy access, is something that our board and staff work hard to maintain.

How did you decide on the format of Noonday Getaway Concerts?
We started with the notion that the programs had to be of the highest musical quality, which we believed could drive a wonderful diversity of musical styles. It was important to us to offer the concerts weekly—often enough to become a part of the ongoing cultural life of Westchester County. And, it was essential that the programs run like clockwork—12:10 start, 1 pm finish—knowing our audience would be taking valuable time for us out of the middle of their day and other obligations.

Which concerts are most popular?
That seems to change from year to year, although there’s a definite shift toward some of our performers with national and international credentials. The great thing about running a series in White Plains is being able to present so many artists on their way to a concert in New York, Boston, or Washington. We’re also drawing on a growing roster of European musicians who are in town for special events.

Can you give a sneak peek into some of this season’s upcoming highlights? 
Our Wednesday noon concerts are always a lot of fun. There are too many to talk about individually, but this season, I’m especially looking forward to a concert featuring the Highbridge Voices on Sunday, November 24.  This choir of young people has it all—a beautifully blended choral sound, a captivating stage presence, and the ability to communicate sheer joy.

I’m also excited about our new partnership with the Baroque music ensemble REBEL. Members of this internationally celebrated group are acting as curators with us for a series of four concerts this year. The full ensemble will be featured on Sunday, February 23.

We’re also bringing back two prize-winners of the New York International Piano Competition. On April 6, Yen Yu Chen and Kate Liu return to Downtown Music to play concertos of Beethoven and Mozart.  They will be accompanied by our chamber orchestra, Downtown Sinfonietta, which features members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with Vince Lionti conducting. The two pianists stunned our audience with their virtuosity when we paired them with Downtown Sinfonietta last season.

I always encourage people to check our website at dtmusic.org or follow us on Facebook to keep informed of our series.

So far, what makes you most proud about your involvement in the founding and running of Downtown Music?
The musical partnerships we have built over the years are a tremendous source of pride. I’m staggered by the credentials of our musicians, and humbled that they would take time to be part of our series. This year alone, we’re featuring members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and many musicians before they begin their major European tours. 

I’m also very proud that this comparatively small arts organization has had a tenure of 26 years, and that an ever-growing number of people in our community have cared enough about Downtown Music to help it find the resources it needs to continue.  

What are your hopes for the organization’s future?
I’d love to welcome even more people to our programs, and hope that they would spread the word about our concerts. I also hope the funding climate for Downtown Music, and other arts organizations, will change over time, and enable us to have enough resources to accommodate all of the incredibly accomplished musicians who would like to share their talents through our series.


“The enthusiastic audience is really amazing—it’s a gift we receive in return for our gift of music. Technology, like YouTube, is good. But to sit and see how music is being created right in front of you with energy, soul, and knowledge is even more enriching.” —Irena Portenko, Dobbs Ferry-based pianist
 

“I’ve been playing in the Downtown Music series for 21 years and I always look forward to being asked again. Usually I perform in the background at weddings, funerals, and special events. Downtown Music is a lot of fun—I enjoy explaining what I’m playing and the audience feedback and appreciation.” —Jonathan Henken, pipe major, Westchester native and Brewster, New York, resident
 

“The lunchtime crowd calls for a shorter program that fills a need for the community. It’s a break out of the day for people to lose themselves in something far off the regular flow of the business of the day.” —Laura Hamilton, violinist, principal associate concertmaster, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
 

“The audiences are excellent—quite large, open, very receptive, and very varied. People can experience high musical quality that’s free, accessible, in the middle of the day, and the middle of town. It’s a pleasure to be associated with that philosophy.” —Peter Muir, pianist, co-founder of the Institute for Music and Health
 

Full disclosure: In addition to enjoying Downtown Music’s calming oasis, writer Karen Odom also serves on its Board of Trustees.

» For More from the November issue, click here.