Edward W Batchelder

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Unusual Venues:
Chamber Music Seeks New Audiences in New Places

photo of violinist with a glass of wine

If we could set the dials on the Way Back machine to the end of the Mesozoic, we’d find ourselves in a world on the brink of enormous evolutionary change. Gigantic dinosaurs would tower above us, feasting on plentiful greenery in blissful ignorance of the extended winter that would soon follow a massive meteor strike. Meanwhile, beneath our feet, tiny, agile mammals would be darting about, sustaining themselves on small bits of nourishment inaccessible to their gigantic relations.

Clearly, if Charles Darwin had been with us, he would have predicted—the future lies with the small.

Fast-forward some 65 million years to the early decades of the twenty-first century, and a similar scenario is playing itself out on a musicological level. Enormous orchestras dominate the stages of performance halls, supporting themselves on the lush greenery of government grants and generous patronage . . . while outside, tiny, agile chamber music ensembles scurry across the landscape, surviving on performances in locations inaccessible to their enormous relations.

Of course, no one is suggesting that symphonies are an endangered species, nor that they will be entirely supplanted by chamber groups. While government cutbacks in the eighties did create a sort of nuclear winter for arts organizations of all kinds, most symphonies have managed to forage enough to survive. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, fewer run deficits now than just ten years ago, and out of those that keeled over into bankruptcy during the nineties, most are up and running again. Despite their enormous size and equally enormous overhead, American symphonies are not going the way of the dinosaur.

Which doesn’t mean that those small, agile chamber groups don’t have a certain advantage. As any biologist will tell you, there is a link between environment and evolution, and in an atmosphere where classical musicians are often seen as “play[ing] music composed by dead people to dwindling, graying audiences” (as LA Times writer Chris Pasles put it), chamber organizations are able to adapt more quickly and to evolve in new and unexpected ways. From community halls in the Aleutian Islands to Florida’s Daytona Speedway, they are exploiting their size and flexibility to reach new audiences in unconventional locations. In many ways, it seems, the future may still belong to the small.

The term “unconventional locations,” however, is relative. While few composers have envisioned their works being performed in, say, fitness clubs, or sports halls of fame, a surprising number of performers and promoters see these new venues as being, at least in part, a return to the music’s roots, a glance over the shoulder at the origins of chamber music.

“People always say to me, ‘It’s so avant-garde, so new!’” says Ronen Segev, whose ensemble Ten O’Clock Classics performs at New York City locations like the legendary disco Studio 54 and Crunch Fitness Clubs. “But I think, isn’t this the way it was in Mozart’s day? It’s all about performing at different events.”

Likewise, Ann Devine, who runs the Fischoff Chamber Music Association’s annual competition in South Bend, Indiana, says the concerts she schedules with visiting ensembles in local homes and businesses are “the way chamber music was designed to be—a very intimate experience.” Rebecca McFaul of the Fry Street Quartet, who have played for Fischoff, seconds this: “In spaces like that, the social interactive element adds to the experience. It adds the original aspect of chamber music to it.”

In short, the more you talk with the people involved in these offbeat bookings, the more you realize that these concerts are not just the usual educational run-outs performed as a public service. Rather, they are part of an attempt to rethink the place of chamber music in American society. In contrast to the austere dynamics of the concert hall, where the audience and the performers sit on opposite sides of the proscenium, these smaller, informal spaces bring the audience more deeply into the musical interactions of the ensemble. At the same time, they surround this richer aesthetic experience with a richer social context in which the audience can often eat, drink, and converse with the musicians. Says Sid Singer about the monthly concert series in his home in Mamaroneck, New York, “the barrier between the audience and the performer is broken . . . the sense of being separated which goes with any hall is absent.”

Dick Gieser, who runs the Music in the Barn series outside of Chicago, underscores this by stressing that, “There’s something awesome about great music in a small space. When you’re so close to the artists, you feel the emotion of it, you can appreciate the difficulty of it, you can see their pupils dilate when they’re lost and you can feel the joy at the successful conclusion of a difficult work.”

These sentiments are echoed across the country. Segev’s TOC Classics was originally organized to “present classical music in jazz club setting—late at night, where people felt calm and relaxed”; it was as part of that project that Segev later included other locations that offered a similar atmosphere. Devine—who actually dreams of a series called Chamber Music in Unusual Places—has scheduled concerts in museums, cafes, and furniture stores, usually incorporating what she refers to as “great food and community” as a way of making the music “less like medicine, and more approachable.”

Michael Parola, percussionist and executive director for the Core Ensemble in Lake Worth, Florida, reports that the group has played the entrance lobby to Daytona Speedway (“for people coming in to buy their Dale Earnhardt T-shirts”), a shopping mall between the up and down escalators (“setting up an interesting antiphonal effect for the people on the escalators”), and even as a opening act for disco legends Sister Sledge (while he “sensed the Sisters wanted to be somewhere else,” he also insists that “The audience was great”). Core, he says, has “specialized in performing in unusual spaces.”

Purists, of course, may object to this emphasis on the audience rather than on the music itself, and indeed, there are costs as well as benefits. TOC Classics, performing before an audience of treadmill enthusiasts in sports clubs, focuses on presenting a startlingly wide range of work within a short space of time, jumping from a movement of a Mozart quintet to an aria to another movement of a brass quintet inside of an hour—a veritable cross-training regimen of classical music. Fischoff’s annual fundraiser, A Taste of Chamber Music, schedules three concerts simultaneously in a café, a pedestrian tunnel, and a miniature stadium (with bleachers for the spectators and a field full of manikins in football costumes), but breaks each concert into twenty-minute segments. This allows the audience to rotate between them to counteract restlessness. And violist Michael Adams, who runs Music in the Vineyards with his violinist wife each August in Napa Valley, acknowledges that the lush beauty of the settings does suggest certain programming decisions. Although they will be bringing in the Kronos Quartet this summer, he admits that “we tend not to push the boundaries of the avant-garde.” In addition, with a half-hour wine tasting scheduled during intermissions, he’s learned it’s preferable to “flip-flop the traditional format—start with the anchor pieces and do the lighter, more whimsical and fun works in the second half after everyone has drunk some wine.”

There are other drawbacks that don’t concern only musical purists. Fry Street’s McFaul raves about the renovated nineteenth-century barn where Dick Gieser hosts his series—“It’s a beautiful space”—but also mentions that “it has lots of mosquitoes!” Bernie Roscetti, program director for PBS in Maine, recalls taping a concert held in a boat shed over the water during the tail end of a hurricane where “you could actually hear the sound of the wave action taking place underneath, you could hear the tide coming in over the mud flats.” Fortunately, he notes, it was a brass concert, and “after you set the microphone level for a brass quintet, the background noises are too faint to be picked up.”

Even worse than annoyances like insects and ambient noise is the threat to instruments posed simply by reaching locations off the beaten track. Although the Sitka Music Festival in Alaska is located in a stunningly serene conference hall overlooking an island harbor, director Paul Rosenthal still recommends that visiting musicians bring a second, sturdier instrument if they plan to do any touring. He has stories of traveling to performances by snowmobile and dogsled, with the instruments towed behind on toboggans, and points out that there is, in Alaska, a large repertory for guitar and violin—transcribed by his wife from works for piano and violin after her own piano was destroyed during a storm while on its way to a distant fishing village by barge.

Surprisingly enough, though, considering the odd hodge-podge of spaces where musicians perform, acoustics still remain on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Ed Noonan, of the Myrna Loy Center in Montana, regularly sends visiting ensembles out on a Great Buildings of Helena tour, playing in the elegant, turn-of-the-century structures that are a visual hallmark of the city.

Nonetheless, he says, “for the buildings we chose, we did some exploration. We sampled the acoustics ahead of time and got feedback from musicians.” He speaks glowingly of the sound in the Power Block, a Romanesque building with a large foyer and overhanging balconies for the listeners, but notes that while he has always wanted to use the state capital rotunda, the circular shape makes it “hard for the musicians to hear one another.”

Bob Scott has similar concerns for his Chamber Music at the Barn series outside of Wichita, Kansas. Begun six years ago in a large building on his property constructed for the sale of Christmas trees, the series has become so popular that he has decided to erect an even larger stone structure to accommodate audience demand. To make sure the sound is right, he’s bringing in acoustical engineers to help with the design.

Many groups face the challenges of performing concerts when they have little or no choice in the venues. Touring throughout its home state of Alaska, the aptly named Arctic Chamber Orchestra learned through frequent performances in school gymnasiums that playing on the gym floor was preferable to the small stages that were usually provided. Similarly, the Fry Street Quartet, now on a rural residency in Hickory, North Carolina, has adapted by developing “a checklist on our minds of how to make places palatable,” says violinist McFaul. “We make sure there won’t be announcements over schools’ PA systems; we try to eliminate noise from blowers and air conditioners; if it’s a rectangular room, we’ve learned to play the corner because it sends the sound out.” Performances spaces have ranged from the sublime (a renovated courthouse in Newton, North Carolina, that was “beautiful, circular, the right size, and designed to be able to hear voices—it was conceived for sound”) to the nightmarish (a high-ceilinged “gymnatorium” with a stage framed by curtains where “the sound went straight up behind the curtains”). Like the ACO, when they played there again, they simply avoided the stage.

All of this may seem to beg the question, though: If everyone is so concerned with sound, why not just stay in the concert hall, where the quality is guaranteed? The musicians and promoters respond that the joys of reaching new audiences, and of reaching even sophisticated audiences in new ways, far outweigh the challenges that have to be overcome.

Perhaps the most articulate defense comes from Phillip Ying, violinist for the Ying Quartet, an ensemble whose career spans the decade from a rural residency in Jessup, Ohio, in 1992 to their current position as the Blodgett Ensemble in Residence at Harvard University. Although he acknowledges that “a living room will never sound like a concert hall,” he insists that “we would be giving up something if we played in only one type of situation.”

“In school,” explains Ying, “it seemed like there was a line drawn between concert hall performance and education, and it seemed like if you tried to do both, you’d be pulled in two directions. But the goal is still the same—to connect with the audience in a powerful and meaningful way. There are different ways to make the music important and meaningful to the audience. In the concert hall, the way to connect is simply to play great string quartets, and the reward for playing in a concert hall is that you get this amazing resonance, and that resonance changes how you play. Outside of the hall, it may require talking, explanation, interactive activities, depending on the audience and the situation. The reward in a living room is that you feel a personal connection.”

Consistently adventurous in exploring new performances spaces, the quartet is currently working with De Camera of Houston, Texas, to take chamber music to what may be the final frontier—the work place. While they started with simply playing lunchtime concerts, they have recently begun exploring “how chamber music can intersect with work life.” By arguing that a string quartet is a model of non-hierarchical decision-making, Ying says, the quartet is able, once again, to “find another avenue of making a connection, to help them find a way into great art and to see its relevance to everyday life. You encourage them to see how they work and relate to colleagues through the lens of chamber music—then you whip out a Beethoven quartet and play it for them, and it’s some of the greatest music ever written.”

The sly enthusiasm in Ying’s voice about communicating his love for chamber music is perhaps the best argument of all for unusual venues. Taking chamber music ensembles into fitness studios, discotheques, apartment buildings, office spaces, barns, and living rooms not only bridges the distance between the places where the music traditionally is played and the places where people actually live, it also lessens the distance between the musicians and the audience during the actual performance, increasing the chance that the spark of the performer’s enthusiasm will jump the gap.

“One really good experience with classical music,” insists Ronen Segev, who chose to play piano after attending a single classical concert when he was thirteen, “can be enough.” Paul Rosenthal recently received a letter from a woman who became a musician, in part, because of a chamber music concert he gave in Selawik, Alaska, in the mid-seventies. After having a glimpse through, in her words, that “window to another world,” she went on to major in harp performance at Eastman School of Music and now works for the education department at Carnegie Hall.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from Chamber Music)


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