Friday, July 20, 2007

Some thoughts on short chamber music recitals

Here’s the repertoire I will be playing at a chamber recital for Dayton Philharmonic donors on Sunday:

Max Bruch, No. 2 and No. 6 (Nocturne) from Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, Op. 83.
Malcolm Arnold, Sonatina for Clarinet and Pianoforte (1951).
Camille Saint-Saëns, Movements II and IV from the Sonate for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 167.
Gabriel Fauré, Barcarolle No. 4 in A-flat Major for piano, Op. 44.
W. A. Mozart, Trio (Kegelstatt) for clarinet, viola, and piano, KV 498.

The recital is a private event that will be presented in a patron’s home. (Apologies to any local fans who would have liked to attend!) A reception will follow so that everyone can mingle in the (hopefully) golden afterglow of a good performance. Now why do I bring all of this up?

I think this kind of more informal event is a really good idea for performing institutions like orchestras and chamber music societies. I have done a few things like this in the past for other institutions or groups, and it is always educational, fun, and eye-opening all at the same time. Here are some of my reasons for why this is important today:

1) Audience/donor/musician connections. Today it’s all about breaking down that wall between the stage and the first row. Events like this let musicians get to know their audience members, and audience members get to know the musicians they see week after week on stage. It is also important for musicians (or any other artists) to learn about the people in their communities who can financially support artistic institutions. Those connections can lead to new endeavors or programs that enrich the arts scene of any town or city.

2) Special musical opportunities for working musicians. There are not too many people in our field who would turn down the opportunity to play some chamber music for a small, appreciative audience. Most professional musicians (especially those who play in an orchestra) appreciate the chance to express themselves in intimate settings through chamber music. Orchestra administrations are beginning to address this need in more creative and beneficial ways these days. A good-quality chamber music program that involves many musicians over the course of a season can also be a huge morale-booster. Higher morale = healthier artistic environment.

3) Unique programming. These small, short, informal recitals can withstand a more
bricolage-like approach to programming. Formal big-league chamber concerts can get a little stuffy sometimes with their emphasis on lengthy and dramatic string quartets, piano quartets, etc. These private events can feature more varied, shorter, and lighter works, including even some compositions of questionable merit, simply because it is a little more about entertainment than deep structural listening. Our program above includes many styles that span centuries and three different types of instrumentation (clarinet-viola-piano trio, clarinet-piano duo, and piano solo). An astute observer might also notice that we are actually performing an incomplete work (only two of the four movements from the Saint-Saëns clarinet sonata)! Well, before the program police rant and rave about how terrible this is, let me just say this: It is a matter of historical record that common performance practice in the nineteenth century involved the presentation of single movements from larger works, as well as a wide range of styles and instrumentations. At a concert back then one could have easily heard a single movement from a Beethoven symphony, a couple of arias from Cosi fan tutte, and then maybe a big virtuoso piano solo (something like the Spanish Rhapsody by Liszt), all in one half of an evening’s program.

Well, I think it is right and appropriate to try this kind of thing again today. After all, there is nothing to lose (except stuffiness) and everything to gain. Besides, presenting shorter works lets the guests refill their drink glasses more often.

Let me also say that much of this lighter music really should be played in a living room or smaller performance venue (that’s why it’s called chamber music). There is a time and place for the larger concert hall, but also a time and place for the small, intimate setting. Both situations can reap meaningful rewards for receptive audiences.

If anyone would like to offer additional thoughts on the topic of this post, please feel free to leave a comment.


Louis said...


I'm all for chamber music in Small Chambers!

Glad to see you're still going strong!
It seems like just yesterday that I was getting lost playing Ginerstera Concerto with you and failing Intro to Piano.

(Actually it seems like a long time ago but I wanted to say that because its nice)

All the Best,
Louis Levitt

sybarite chamber players

Joshua Nemith said...

Hey Louis! Good to hear from you.

It looks like you're going strong as of luck with the continued success of your ensemble (thanks for the web address).

Yes, you're right, that piano class WAS a long time ago...but thanks for being nice anyway.

Do stay in touch and let me know if your group comes to the Cincinnati area. Be sure to say hi to Steve Miahky - we play together quite often in the IRIS orchestra!

Louis said...

Hi Josh,

I'll tell Steve you say hi.
Send my regards to Maestro Schhhtern and Iris.

Just thought I would get your take on the definition of Art VS Entertainment as it pertains to musical performance.


Joshua Nemith said...

Hey Louis,

I don't have much to say on the issue of art vs. entertainment because I think it's pretty much an artificial divide. It's a topic that is great for cocktail party conversation or for an academic aesthetics seminar. But for me the argument (which almost always favors art over entertainment) is too often used as an apologetic for stuffy elitism, to which I don't ascribe much credibility.

Honestly, all performance art has an entertainment component, from Broadway musicals to Babbitt's most daunting serialist compositions. Whether something has less or more of one or the other involves complicated aesthetic, cultural, political, and value judgments that are difficult to isolate. We always have to be alert to questionable biases and other agendas. (For example, postmodern scholarship has helped our culture to dispense with the idea of "high" and "low" art, since the implications of such a framework can marginalize cultural actors and communities unfairly.)

So for me, I pretty much have internalized that what I do lies on a continuum of artistic and entertainment functions, and the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I'm at peace with that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Justin. I’ve read that this sort of thing is easily found. It took me a lot of searching. Easy to do, unless you have to do it by the manual. Online english degree | teaching assistant phd degree