Music lovers sad to see group go

Published in the March 28, 2016 edition.


WAKEFIELD — Saturday, April 16 is a day that will long live in the collective memory of Wakefield music lovers.

It is the chosen date for the final Standing Room Only (SRO) concert, and Co-founders Peter Stickel and John Bumstead are closing the series with mixed feelings.

“We have so many fond memories, among them hearing over and over, ‘This is the best Christmas concert anywhere,’” Stickel said.

After living in Wakefield since 1993, Stickel and Bumstead have purchased a home in Pepperell close to the historic part of town but tucked away so privately that a 57-year resident installing the cable was astounded not to know of the house.

“My 23 years here (in Wakefield) is the longest I’ve lived anywhere and it’s been a good place for us to build a life together, get involved with the progressive values and activities of the Wakefield Unitarian Universalist Church and have easy access to the highways for our freelance music careers,” said Stickel, adding that he had been craving a more rural, peaceful setting, since he grew up in the Cumberland Valley in south-central Pennsylvania, part of the Great Appalachian Valley.

“John’s own vision of a house with a barn with a big upstairs for music-making dovetailed with my fantasy, so when he announced to me in the middle of our busy season that he thought he saw our dream house on the Internet, I was forced to listen. Soon we were in hot pursuit. The rest, you might say, is the future.”

SRO originated seven years ago when Stickel and Maddie Sifantus, former Unitarian Universalist Church minister and professional singer, envisioned a concert series that would serve Wakefield and the Metro North area with high quality performances and also raise money for building repairs for the 180-year-old church building.

“As the fall of 2009 approached, Maddie’s elderly mother started needing special attention,” Stickel said, “so I more or less ran with it, but her R&B group The Vocal Section opened the first season and she contributed mightily to the series’ success over the next five-and-a-half years that she was minister of the church.”

During the past seven years, SRO has welcomed world champion accordionist Cory Pesaturo and friends, the world music of Zulu Time, Music at the Movies and the Boston Cello Quartet. Christmas concerts regularly featured local vocal superstars that included Joseph Holmes, Holly Zagaria and Leigh Barrett, accompanied by a crackerjack string orchestra.

“Then there were the gorgeously decorated and sumptuously supplied champagne and chocolate Valentine intermissions created by Elizabeth and Joe Lowry; catching the enthusiasm of subscribers, including the late Paul Fallon, who often brought friends and for whom there were always pigs-in-blankets no matter how highfalutin the cuisine at receptions,” said Stickel.

“I know that Dan and Lois Benjamin, on a date at the Season 1 finale, met and kept in touch with Candy O’Terry, who would eventually sing for them at their wedding.”

Essentially, the series was an offering from the church’s community outreach team, including the Lowrys, who skillfully designed, constructed and managed the hall for each concert. Meanwhile, Joe Cresta, front of the house manager, faithfully handled “the door” and the hospitality functions.

Stickel said: My role has involved artistic, production, promotion and business functions, skills developed as longtime executive director of the New England String Ensemble, an orchestra co-founded by John and myself.”

SRO has held four concerts for each of the seven seasons, so the final concert on April 16 with the Scottish Roots music of Atlantic Seaway will mark their 28th.

Stickel said that the goal for each concert has been to find the “sweet spot” on the arts-entertainment continuum, works that are challenging and relevant enough to stretch the musicians but also are just plain enjoyable.

“We’ve dared to offer a wide variety of styles, though none more audacious than our first season, opening with R&B, continuing with a mostly classical Candlelight Christmas, a jazz Valentine concert and, finally, the rock talents of Charlie Farren and his pop partner Candy O’Terry.”

In the second and seventh seasons, SRO settled on a pattern of opening with something colorful and original, continuing with the Christmas and Valentine traditions, the latter consistently from the Great American Songbook, all building to a big finish for the season finale.

“The Valentine concerts were often led by Mark Morgan and his New England Light Opera cohorts or by John Middleton-Cox and his New England Tenors,” said Stickel. “Season finales twice featured New England Brass, also the Boston Children’s Chorus concert choir, Mari Black and her World Fiddle Ensemble and the unforgettable and indescribable 26-piece Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, recreating the music of Juan Garcia Esquivel.”

Each season has had its own theme, including the fourth season’s celebration of the church’s bicentennial in 50-year increments: An opening concert around the War of 1812, a Civil War Christmas, an early 20th Century exploration of immigrant communities and their love songs (especially Irish and Italian) and a salute to the changing times of the 1960s.

For the grand finale on April 16, Stickel said he “searched madly” for a season finale that would match the energy and artistry of last year with Mari Black and her World Fiddle Ensemble.

“Having heard the miraculous Scottish vocalist Maureen McMullan in recital earlier in the year, at John’s suggestion I approached her with the hope that she might be interested in a concert built around her talents,” he said.

Sure enough, McMullan’s association with Lawrence Bethune and the Alliance for Scottish Roots Music was the perfect partnership to create a concert that could live up to exalted expectations.

“So, the Scottish theme is a happenstance but also a happy coincidence for me because my mother’s family (Carruthers) was Scottish, including a whole bunch of Presbyterian ministers. And since it was my mother who encouraged me with music, the theme for this last concert is a bit personal,” Stickel said.

The future, she added, currently does not include plans to resurrect SRO in their new community.

“After 15 years and 200 plus concerts with New England String Ensemble and now seven seasons of Standing Room Only, with the constant pressure of an upcoming concert or season to produce and promote and manage, I’m taking a break to concentrate a bit more on non-volunteer work and a lot more on the grass, pond, house and the critters and the husband.”

That said, however, Stickel said “there is a good chance that we will continue the annual Candlelight Christmas concert that has been so popular. And the concert team will continue to produce single concerts, though not part of a subscription season.”

Though Stickel and Bumstead will soon leave Wakefield, they will take many memories with them.

“My background is actually in the healing arts,” Stickel said, “so seeing in people’s faces the effect of a good musical experience — its ability to welcome us into our own skin and to invite us to make or renew connections with ourselves — has always the best part of the job.”

Tickets are now on sale for the final SRO concert. Order online at or mail check to Wakefield UU Church, PO Box 529, Wakefield MA 01880. Single tickets $32, seniors 65+ and students $27.