Looking into ways to expand audiences, the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra partners with Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Gallery for a three-event series intended to wipe out the barriers between performers, composers, and listeners, and to bring intimacy and informality to a new level. Short selections of music, some classical and some contemporary, by no more than a handful of players will alternate with opportunities for unscripted chats between audience and instrumentalists. The interactions also will be lubricated with pourings and tastings served in the midst of an ongoing art exhibition. Coordinators call the salons “The NBCO@Zimmerli.”

The first event takes place Sunday, January 11, at 3 p.m. in the lower level of the Zimmerli’s Dodge wing. This season the museum dispensed with charging admission, and both museum and the musical event are free.

The Dodge wing is named after Norton Dodge, who donated his collection of Soviet non-conformist art to the Zimmerli. The current exhibit consists of unofficial Soviet art created in Odessa between 1960 and 1980.

The eclectic range of the Odessa art show resonates with the range of music to be played during the NBCO@Zimmerli programs, says NBCO artistic director Mark Hyczko. “The intention of the programs is to provide an informal and intimate atmosphere to experience some less-heard repertoire primarily by living and local composers. Although we will also program masterworks, we want audiences to encounter and become familiar with works by recent and current composers of contemporary classical music.”

Additional NBCO@ Zimmerli events by small ensembles are scheduled for Saturday, March 7, and Friday, May 8, both at 7 p.m. They, like the first event, will take place in the midst of an ongoing art exhibit.

A performance by the full NBCO takes place Sunday, June 7, 4 p.m., in New Brunswick’s Christ Church. Organist John Sheridan, Christ Church music director, is the solo performer. “The full concert is to be a culmination of the Zimmerli programs,” says NBCO president John Semmlow. “The idea is to use the Zimmerli programs to introduce the kind of music we want to perform — cutting edge, but accessible pieces. We want to educate the audience through the casual, easy ambiance of the Zimmerli salons to the music we will present in the concert in expanded versions.”

The NBCO@Zimmerli series follows a test-run of the format that took place in New Brunswick’s Alfa Art Gallery in June, 2014. Says Semmlow: “During the trial at the Alfa Art Gallery we discovered that the intimacy of the space, the exciting music, and the accessibility of the musicians thoroughly engaged the audience, many of whom were new or only casual listeners to classical music.”

The Alfa concert was an eye-opener, not only for listeners, but also for performers. Violinist Ruotao Mao, who serves as NBCO concertmaster, says that “At Alfa we thought that it would be wine and cheese, with music in the background. But people sat down and listened! It was a very pleasant surprise. We thought people would be busy eating.”

“Between pieces, the performers chatted with the audience. The audience loved the music and said so,” Mao says. “We got all sorts of comments and questions. One person came who loved classical pieces. Another was a fan of bluegrass music. It was very satisfying to know that we were exposing people to something new.”

While talking about selections for the salons, Mao delights in the diversity of music being written today. “I love to explore contemporary music,” he says. “There are wonderful composers, and different styles. In Beethoven’s time his music was contemporary. Now his music has become classical. Today there are many more composers, and music is more global than in Beethoven’s time.”

Mao has played concerts with NBCO since May, 2013. In addition to performing, he is a member of the adjunct music faculty at the College of New Jersey, where he teaches violin, viola, and chamber music.

Born in Beijing, China, in 1966, Mao comes from a family where both parents are music lovers. His father is a retired professor of aesthetics. His mother is a retired geologist.

When he was six Mao started violin studies with his father. A year later he switched to a professional violinist. At age 17 he came to the United States to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. Mao holds a master’s degree from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.

“There was nothing really difficult about the transition from Beijing,” Mao says. “Learning the language takes a couple of years.” As for American culture, he says, “I didn’t find any difficulties there.”

Mao has performed internationally as a chamber musician and as a concerto soloist. In addition to the NBCO, he is concertmaster of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony, the Delaware Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, the Riverside Symphonia, and the Edison Symphony Orchestra.

He lives in Princeton with his wife, cellist Mikyung Lee, with whom he sometimes performs chamber music. The couple has two children: a son, Terry, 15, and a daughter, Sarah, 11.

Mao willingly allows artistic director Hyczko to take the lead in programming the NBCO@Zimmerli events. Hyczko, for his part says, “Programming choices will be a joint decision between the players and me.”

A conversation with Hyczko reveals the pervasive informality binding the programs together. Indeed, less than two weeks before the first event, Hyczko is not yet certain of either all the players or all the pieces to be heard.

Hyczko contentedly leaves decisions for the last minute. In large measure, the informality of the events derives from avoiding a program fixed in advance, and relying, instead, on the spontaneity that results from under-rehearsed performance.

“For example,” Hyczko says, “we’ve got one piece definitely lined up for the first program, a quintet for clarinet and strings. Titled ‘Quintet in C’ by Samuel A. Livingston, it’s a fun piece based on folk dances mostly with seven beats in a measure.” Livingston, incidentally, is a Hopewell-based — and mainly self-taught — composer.

Hyczko continues: “I’m going through choices with the clarinet player right now. I’d like to have him play a second piece if he’s there. We’re both looking through repertoire that’s A: contemporary, B: about 10 minutes or less, C: accessible, and D: readily available at the Rutgers library.”

“There will no printed program,” Hyczko says. “Instead, the players will announce each piece, briefly talk about it, and tell what the listener can expect to hear. We won’t be doing complete works, just a movement here and there as ‘studies in contrast.’”

“I’m considering programming two additional works for the first salon. Both are short, by living composers, and available in the Rutgers University library. Also, they have the benefit of not being too difficult to put together with limited rehearsal time. The music to be played at the salons will be explored by NBCO performers. I’m hopeful that they will discuss interesting angles of the pieces from their perspective. I’m looking for informality, and not a lecture-recital. I’m looking for the players to be as excited to perform the works as the listeners will be to hear them.”

Looking at the present and future, Hyczko says, “We’re at the Zimmerli because it’s a lovely space with a long history of hosting classical chamber music events. This is our first foray together. We hope that it will result in a long collaboration.”

NBCO@Zimmerli, Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Free parking is available in the Kirkpatrick Chapel parking lot. Sunday, January 11, 3 p.m.; Saturday, March 7, 7 p.m.; and Friday, May 8, 7 p.m. Free. newbrunswickchamberorchestra.org or 848-932-7237.

The NBCO concerts also share space at the Zimmerli with a new weekend concert series organized by the Mason Gross Extension Division. Future concerts in that series are scheduled for Sundays at 2 p.m. on February 15, March 15, and April 12. Free. www.masongross.rutgers.edu/extension.

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