Pyxis at DelArt – 14 Seasons!

It began with a piano. Well, arts endeavors truly begin with the artist, and this one was no exception. Pyxis was born from the creativity of violinist Meredith Amado, but the Museum’s piano was a starring player.

The instrument is stored in a nook on the Museum’s main floor, swaddled by the building’s highly controlled temperature and humidity. It’s a Steinway “Satin Ebony” Concert Grand B – a 6-foot-11-inch model introduced by the iconic company in 1878 and still manufactured today. Verified by its serial number, the Museum’s instrument was built in 1905. It seems to have come via a gracious (and unidentified) donor sometime in the 1980s; no existing records cite that person to whom musicians and audiences over the years have been grateful.

In 2008, then-director Danielle Rice (1951-2019) and musician Meredith Amado began to talk about presenting chamber music in the Museum. The Juilliard-trained violinist and her husband David (conductor of the Delaware Symphony) had moved to Wilmington several years earlier, and Meredith had previously created a music series in St. Louis. She felt that the Museum galleries would be a perfect locale for an ensemble, and Danielle agreed. At the time, I was working at the Museum, and since I was an experienced producer, my boss tasked me with making the series a reality. We decided to call it Concerts on Kentmere.

Meredith wanted to create a piano quartet – three string players (violin, viola, cello) and a pianist. But first we had to ascertain if the Museum’s piano – played periodically for events – was still concert-worthy, so I asked two gifted keyboard artists (both named David!) to play the instrument. Conductor David Amado is also a Juilliard-trained pianist, and organist/composer David Schelat trained at Eastman School of Music. Each came for a “road test,” giving the same verdict: The piano was a sound (and good sounding) instrument, but it needed substantial work to bring it to a concert standard.

The Museum agreed, and in 2009 this work (including some rebuilding) was completed. Meanwhile, Meredith – who was playing with groups throughout the region – identified the ensemble’s players. She would be the violinist, Amy Leonard would play viola, Jennifer Jie Jin would play cello, and Hiroko Yamazaki would be the pianist. With a democratic aim – no formal leader and input from all – the four women set about the intricate process of getting to know one another musically, discussing potential repertoire, and (of course) rehearsing.

The group also had to find a name, and their research led them to “Pyxis Piano Quartet.” Pyxis is a constellation named by 18th century French astronomer Nicolas de Lacaille, and it represents the magnetic compass used for navigation. The ensemble’s bio reflects the still-apt reason for their choice: “The group takes its name from the Pyxis constellation, also known as the Mariners’ Compass, whose symbol is the compass rose. The points of the compass rose represent the new artistic directions that the group strives to take together while recognizing the different backgrounds and experiences of its musicians.”

Pyxis played its very first concert on October 1, 2009, an evening of Mozart and Brahms in the Museum’s iconic Pre-Raphaelite Gallery. The ensemble determined that future repertoire would include both familiar masterworks and music (old and new) that should be better known. Those early concerts moved from gallery to gallery, and the group quickly became known for their virtuosic musicianship and lively explorations. Pyxis is not so peripatetic anymore – to accommodate the audiences, concerts are now held in the Museum’s expansive Fusco Hall.

All ensembles evolve over time, navigating changes, and Pyxis is no exception. In 2015, Meredith decided to retire from the group, and for the 2015-16 season the players invited a series of other violinists to join them. One of those esteemed guest artists was Luigi Mazzocchi, who formally joined the ensemble in the 2016-17 season.

During the pandemic shutdown (a difficult time for performers) Pyxis kept afloat via online or live-streamed concerts. After that challenging time of reflection and regrouping, violist Amy Leonard moved on to other endeavors, and the three players determined to continue as Pyxis Piano Trio, exploring the repertoire of their new configuration.

The 2022-23 season marks the ensemble’s 14th year in residence at the Museum. They’ve been making music among its exhibitions and collections for an appreciative audience, some of whom have been attending since that inaugural 2009 concert. Pyxis is especially grateful to Emerita Curator Margaretta Frederick, who first made artistic space for audiences and musicians – and that big concert grand piano – in the iconic (and often crowded) Pre-Raphaelite galleries. It’s fitting that this year’s concerts are in conversation with the groundbreaking exhibition A Marriage of Arts & Crafts, which Margaretta co-curated. On to the future!

Gail Obenreder O’Donnell writes critically about the arts, formerly for The News Journal and now for Broad Street Review, Philadelphia’s online arts journal. A 2016 Fellow of the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, she is also an experienced arts professional, presenter, and producer. When she worked at the Delaware Art Museum (from 2005 to 2013) she helped to create Concerts on Kentmere and has been gratefully affiliated with Pyxis since their very first 2009 concert.

Photograph by Shannon Woodloe