Chamber Music and Conductors


Conductors are first and foremost musicians.  Their primary musical instrument is the orchestra (or chamber orchestra, or choral group, or band), but they usually play other instruments also.  Choosing Evan Quinn’s other instrument(s) in Perceval turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected.  At least until I realized that he would want to be in a string quartet, which narrowed the choices.  It could have been viola or cello, but I settled on violin.  He also plays the piano although not all that well.  He’s a string player, and like all conductors, he also has a general knowledge of all the other instruments in the orchestra.  But it was chamber music that guided me in choosing what he would have played as a child.

Chamber music resembles solo performance more than orchestral performance.  In a string quartet, each member’s performance is like a solo, equal in weight to the other players.  And there’s no hiding in a crowd.  Chamber music tends to also be transparent but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or simple.  So the players need to know their parts and play at the top of their game, and they need to think as one.  I think of it also as a spiritual experience, both to play in a chamber ensemble and to listen to one.  I often feel like each line of music reaches out to me like tendrils to caress my ears.  This kind of performance mesmerizes children because of its intimacy.  They can see exactly what’s going on as well as hear it.

A little girl sat next to me yesterday, with her father, at the first concert in the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest.  It happened to be a chamber concert.  She was restless, as young children are (all that energy!), but during the music she was quiet, listening, sitting on her father’s lap so she could see the stage more clearly.  At the end of each piece, she said, “What’s next?”  Two words that are music to a writer’s ears!  I spotted other children at the concert, all engrossed in the music. 

The first piece on the program was “Selections from Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano,” Op. 83 by Max Bruch.   The musicians of this trio included the principal violist of the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vanska, the music director.  A conductor playing chamber music.  I felt as if Evan Quinn sat next to me, grinning.  But it was that young girl, perched on her father’s lap.  Mr. Vanska plays the clarinet and rather well.  In his opening remarks, he commented that for this piece, it was just him and the clarinet playing.  This is not something he does on a regular basis, at least not publically.  Intense, luscious Bruch, played by this accomplished trio of players, and for Mr. Vanska, far from conducting.  He was now a peer, expected to pull his own weight.  This is a conversation among friends in comparison to the orchestra’s performance.  Chamber music offers an opportunity for an intimate relationship with the music, to experience it on a spiritual level as a player, to be inside of it.  An audience joins in that experience and contributes its energy to the performance.  Musicians love chamber music.

The concert was excellent, with a Lennox Berkeley Quartet for Oboe and String Trio and Robert Schumann’s Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello following the Bruch.  The young girl applauded like an old girl.  I wondered what musical instrument she played.  I imagined that Evan Quinn grinned.  He would have loved this concert as much as I did….

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2 responses to “Chamber Music and Conductors

  1. My thought was the Drum Corps International bands. Being a marching band enthusiast when younger, they were the apex of the hobby. Except for them, it wasn’t a hobby. It was an entire Summer of day in and day out travel on the road and competition.

    Yes, one can certainly hide there in the crowd musically. But not visually. One wrong step or turn and the entire well-oiled machine comes to a crashing halt.

    Listening to them play is, yes, a spiritual experience. It totally engulfs me. I’ve seen them on TV occasionally (in this day and age of 100s of channels). But, more critically I got to see them occasionally when I was in high school and college. As with any other type of music, it’s just not the same unless it’s in person.

    Playing in a concert band is as much of a total physical experience as a marching band. Just because one is sitting doesn’t mean the entire body as well as mind aren’t involved. Musicians aren’t machines sitting perfectly still. They move as the spirit of the music moves them. Yet, those musicians have a different range of movement allowed them than a marching band.

    Most marching bands require (usually) a complete lack of motion from the waist up, to counteract the motion of the body in order to allow the embrochure to work right in contact with the instrument. Yet you can still see the tension or relaxation of the musicians along with the emotion of the music.

    The marching bands appeal to me in a way that chamber orchestras can’t. Not that I don’t like them both, but as with any two groups of musicians, I don’t like them in the same way. Then again, I got to play the oboe sitting down & the tenor sax in marching band. It also gave me two very different outlets for musical expression.

    I think any serious musician ought to be able to play more than one instrument, even if not equally proficiently, preferably from a different family. Like Evan – piano & violin – or my humble self: oboe and sax (I know they’re both woodwinds, but I’m splitting double & single reeds.)

    Is the clarinet the primary instrument for Vanska? I imagine it is difficult for the conductor to step down from the platform and put herself on par with the other musicians, giving up the leadership role. A different emotional aspect to her individual contribution to the performance. Although I imagine it would be fun for her to step aside for a change and throw herself into as aspect of life which she has (I imagine) likely put aside in favor of conducting.

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