Chamber music, with its graceful, intimate character, presents a special set of challenges and pleasures to the musicians who play it.
In the same way that listening to Beethoven string quartets is a different experience from listening to Beethoven symphonies, there’s a significant difference between playing in a small, leaderless ensemble and performing in a large orchestra under the baton of a conductor. Both genres require a high degree of musicianship, but the methods and goals are quite distinct.
Bil Jackson, associate professor of clarinet at Blair and a veteran performer in both orchestras and chamber ensembles, describes it as “driving a Ferrari versus a Cadillac Escalade—both elegantly serve a different purpose.” Jackson also likens the unique interaction within a chamber ensemble to a musical dance. But with no designated leader, how does the group achieve the cohesiveness needed to attain that perfect musical choreography?
It starts, according to associate professor John Kochanowski, violist with the Blair String Quartet and coordinator of university student chamber music, with each member’s strong desire to shape the performance. Good chamber players, Kochanowski says, should have “a tremendous belief in the way they want to make phrases in music.” He believes that phrasing is “all about emotion,” and he tries to help his students learn to express their own emotional interpretation of the music. “Ultimately, if they can’t talk about love and hate and angst and all these things in front of me,” Kochanowski says, “they aren’t going to be able to do it in their practicing and, in the end, come out with a performance that’s going to be what all these great composers put notes on a page for.”
Each member’s strong feelings, however, must go hand in hand with a willingness to compromise. “You may have one, two, three or four opinions in a string quartet,” Kochanowski says. “So how do you get your idea across when there may be three other ideas? That comes down to compromise. You take some of your idea and put it with the other ideas, and you come up with the solution.” The players must respect each other’s opinions, he notes, and be willing to honor a group vote or even an occasional coin toss. Kochanowski approvingly cites a mentor’s advice to him that a chamber ensemble should ultimately function “as one big head with eight hands.”
Of course, in addition to opinions and emotions, the players must possess a mastery of their instruments. Technical competence is critical for any musician, but in a small ensemble it is essential that the members’ skill levels are well-matched. Benjamin Hart, BMus’10, violinist with the Ars Nova String Quartet, believes that a group “is only as strong as its weakest member.” Jackson compares a chamber group to a team climbing Mount Everest and says that it “only takes one person who is not up to the task to significantly compromise the success of summiting.” Each member is responsible for keeping up with the group, or, as Kochanowski notes, they’re “going to be exposed for what they haven’t done.”
Jackson, Hart and Kochanowski all agree that, ultimately, a responsive, attentive relationship among the members is at the core of a successful chamber ensemble. “The greatest quartet players are dynamic listeners,” Hart says. “At no given moment is anyone playing louder or softer, faster or slower without complete awareness of the ensemble.” Jackson emphasizes the need for a “unified musical concept,” and agrees that the players must have a heightened awareness of each other if they are to deliver a great performance. For Kochanowski, the ideal relationship goes even deeper, with the group experiencing a real emotional bond. “When I sit on the stage—and I think my colleagues would say the same thing—even though I love the energy the audience is bringing, we’re playing for each other. We’re making music for each other.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell, Steve Green