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….