Maybe the best thing about chamber music is that you can watch the players sweat.
You can see them grin and grimace, hear grunts of effort and groans of pleasure. They see you, too, because youre just a few feet away. Your energy becomes musical oxygen to a string quartet or piano trio.
And the pickings are riper than ever hereabouts. Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte is blazing through a 16-concert program that spans three centuries, from Handel to Gershwin. Providence United Methodist Church is halfway into a chamber season full of local and world premieres.
Music at St. Albans, a Davidson series that also brings concerts to Charlotte, delves into Celtic and gospel music as well as classics in its six-performance season. Other concerts pop up under the radar, often on colleges cultural series.
These gigs have fiscal value: They cost a tenth as much as an orchestral concert or nothing at all, in some cases yet provide 100 percent of the musical satisfaction of a massive Tchaikovsky symphony.
At the same time, they remain an acquired taste for most classical music fans in Mecklenburg County. But people who become converts tend to turn into preachers.
I discovered it at a summer festival in Maine, sitting in the second row for a Brahms trio, says Alan Black, principal cellist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. I could see, hear, feel the communication among the players. I was enthralled. His zeal led to the founding of Chamber Music at St. Peters in 1996, where the motto was Its all about joy. (The Bechtler absorbed that series in 2012, after it changed names and management.)
CSO bassoonist Lori Tiberio learned the thrill of getting together to jam with friends at somebodys house as a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where she was as likely to play Brubeck as Bach. That revelation inspired the series at Providence Methodist; three decades later, it remains a forum for Charlotte Symphony players and their colleagues.
The Friends of Music website at Queens University of Charlotte defines chamber music formally as written for two to approximately ten performers, with the stipulation that only one player performs each part, normally without a conductor.
Informally, jamming with friends has been going on for 350 years, reaching its peaks with Schubert and Chopin performing in the early 1800s in Viennese or Paris salons. The closest local equivalent would be the Bechtlers Living Room Concerts, where 40 to 80 people gather in a home for food, drink and conversation.
So why is it cool?
Its the absolute ideal of democracy, says pianist Paul Nitsch, wholl play in the Bechtlers Valentines Day concert and guided Queens now-dormant Friends of Music series. You share insights and hopes in the collaboration. However you feel about the other players, you must come together when youre onstage.
Soloists do what they want. Musicians in an orchestra are team players who are told what to do. In chamber music, everyones an equal participant.
Says Tiberio, It illuminates a composer in a way orchestral music doesnt always. Hearing chamber music is like getting to know composers personally. Black thinks of the interplay as a conversation: You listen to how instruments talk to each other, the way one plays a line and another takes that conversation in a new direction.
Ben Roe, artistic adviser for the Bechtlers Music and Museum program, found different virtues in violinist Karen Gomyos dazzling performance with the symphony this season and her recital the same week:
Chamber music draws you in, in a way you may not be drawn in if you listen with 2,000 people. At the Bechtler, she showed her astonishing technique in pieces by Vivaldi, Piazzola and others. You cant understand the finesse required to play a Ravel sonata until youre 3 feet away.
Roe used to be general manager of WDAV-FM. Now hes managing director of classical services for WGBH in Boston. He says the (musical) soil in Charlotte has always been sandier, and shoots need to push up harder to flower. That said, when we do Schuberts Trout Quintet, which seems like a greatest hit in Boston, you have people in the (Bechtler) audience who have never heard it played, and theyre as far from jaded as you can get. The fragility of the ecosystem makes people really appreciate pieces when they hear them.
So where do you hear it?
Roe noted that Charlotte has no venue designed for chamber music, the way Londoners have Wigmore Hall and New Yorkers have Carnegie Hall. Churches, all-purpose college auditoriums and museums often carry the burden.
Maybe thats a good idea, says Christopher Lawing, the Bechtlers vice president of programming and research (and music director at Mallard Creek Presybterian Church). The 1980s idea of a museum as a place of quiet contemplation has given way to the idea that we should be more participatory, more engaging. We use the collection as a common denominator and link it to music, architecture and film.
Lawing says his chamber audience first split 20-80 between museum members and nonmembers. Now its 60-40; some members discovered this music, and some music fans became new members. Theyre drawn by the Bechtlers national reach; in December, it brought The Vivaldi Project from Virginia and soprano Maria Jette from Minnesota.
Maybe the venue doesnt matter, if youre close enough to the players to make that unshakeable connection.
To hear musicians playing as equals is to get as close to perfection as you can in human endeavor, Nitsch declares. If all societies worked this way, how beautiful life could be.
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