Monday, March 3, 2008

Chamber Music

Whew! What a busy week last week was, topped by a hectic weekend. I played an unusual concert Saturday night which I will blog about later and yesterday, my students played for Certificate of Merit, which I will also explain later. But most of my time lately has been spent learning, listening to, and playing chamber music. Since a couple of people have asked me about my chamber music activities, I thought I would give a brief explanation here of what it is that gets us string players so excited.

Briefly, chamber music is music that is written for groups of ten people or less. More than that and you need a conductor to keep things together (Orpheus being an outstanding exception). It is music that is meant to be played in a small space (a chamber or room) with one person per part. In contrast, orchestral music is for larger groups of people, is played in large concert halls, and particularly for the string section, may have as many as 16 or more people playing the same part.

While there is a lot of chamber music for wind players, string players have the ace here. There is a wealth of music written just for various combinations of strings, strings with piano, strings with winds, strings with piano and winds. To some (me included), the string quartet is the epitome of chamber music and many of the greatest composers wrote their best music for this combination. When the piano could no longer serve Beethoven's artistic imagination, he turned to the string quartet in his last years and wrote what is now known as his Late Quartets—music that is unsurpassed for its beauty, uniqueness, originality, profundity, and lots of other attributes that words can't describe.

The string quartet consists of four players, two violins, one viola, and one cello. People often assume that the double bass, being the fourth member of the string family, should be part of the string quartet, but, with all due respect to my double bass colleagues, the bass is too large and unwieldy to be a true independent voice in a quartet. And that is the hallmark of the string quartet—four equal and independent voices. That is what makes it so inviting to players, amateur and professional alike. In an orchestra situation, there is less opportunity for self expression, especially as a string player. Think of all those 16 people playing together. If they each went their own way, it would be chaos. The music we play in an orchestra is usually chosen by the conductor, the bowings and sometimes even the fingerings are proscribed by the concertmaster and section leaders. The last thing you want to do in such a situation is stick out. At the other end of the spectrum you have the soloists but, to me, the life of a soloist appears to be rather lonely. In a quartet or other ensemble, you can have the best of both worlds, comradeship and the opportunity for self expression.

Add another viola or a second cello to the quartet and you have a quintet. Add both and you get a sextet. I have been fortunate to be able to play all these combinations in the last few weeks. Where do you find players? It's easy (almost). The classical music world is a small world, and the chamber music world even smaller. Some of the people I have been playing with recently, I have known for 30 years, since my arrival in California. We play for ourselves (and sometimes a spouse or two), in each other's homes. Over the years, we have added new members to the group, and played in all sorts of combinations. There is even a society of chamber music players that is worldwide. I have a friend who travels to England on business frequently. She looked up some people in the Amateur Chamber Music Players Directory and now brings her violin with her and plays chamber music while she is there. And there is a professional group in the U.S. called Chamber Music America. Amateurs can join this organization also.

When the opportunity came up to play the rarer works of the quintet and sextet genre, I hunted around for parts for these combinations. Some of the printed music is very hard to find, even for famous works that have been recorded on CD. My fellow violinist in the group alerted me to Editions Silvertrust. This organization is devoted to publishing "unjustly neglected music by once famous composers whose works were much appreciated." My first foray through their catalog prompted me to buy Bruckner's Quintet (music sent from heaven), Frank Bridge's Phantasie Quartet, and on a whim, a work by a total unknown, a quartet by Othmar Schoeck. Like my bookshelves, my file cabinets are bulging with music I have bought over the years. But unlike the many books I have never read, the music gets played. Next up, viola quintets—Bruckner and Beethoven's Op. 29.

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