Outside of orchestral rehearsals National Music Camp has a whole host of activities on offer, and the chance to play chamber music is often a crowd favourite amongst musicians. In a series of in-house chamber music showcases, musicians were assigned to small ensembles and given the opportunity to play a range of charming repertoire in front of their peers.
Words About Music participant, Nicky Gluch explores how both chamber and orchestral playing complement one another, and inform her practice as an emerging conductor.
Though it may sound like a contradiction in terms, as a conductor I have a particular fondness for chamber music. Sure, my musical services may not be required, but chamber music requires a mindset not dissimilar to that which we assume when we step onto the podium. Might we look, as well, to some of the common difficulties which seem to point to secrets of what makes music, music, and not just notes on a page?
That a young musician is performing at AYO National Music Camp, at all, is testament to countless hours spent practising and honing one’s craft on an instrument. With a teacher’s guidance, students perfect repertoire, learn scales and extended technique. Seated in an orchestra, they assimilate these skills so that, with a conductor’s leadership, they can achieve a polished, unified performance. The result is, unquestionably, remarkable. But then these students assemble in their chamber groups and that guiding hand of a conductor falls away. Now, they must find ways to work together, to take ownership of their interpretation, walk on stage and deliver it to their peers. It’s a challenge, and a steep learning curve, but the design of the AYO’s chamber program means that these are well handled, with a sense of fun at the forefront, the program educative without being didactic.
Violinist Lachlan Bramble is the coordinator of the chamber music program at camp in 2020. He explains how the planning begins long before the students arrive, sitting down with Eliza McCracken (AYO Artistic Administrator) and pondering a spreadsheet of the musicians’ names and instruments. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, mixing up the instrument groups to avoid just having string quartets, contemplating available – and diverse – repertoire and making sure that everyone is suitably assigned. What to do with the double basses? Fortunately Peter Grans wrote some bass quartets. Telemann takes care of any spare violins (though they’ll have the challenge of learning to play without vibrato) and for those string quartets there’s Emilie Mayer, Vincent D’Indy, Alfred Hill and Ross Edwards, to name just a few of Lachlan’s selections. No, one doesn’t just have to rely on Haydn!
The chamber showcases took place over three afternoons in the second week of camp. 149 wind and string players were involved, arranged in 35 different ensembles (the brass and percussion had their own showcase on the Friday night). A member from the orchestral management team welcomed us, the sound engineering students arranged the recording equipment and the ensembles walked on, introducing themselves.
The first day introduced the audience to Ann Cawrse’s Ulterior Motives for string trio. Beethoven’s Quartet No.5, Op.18 was described as “the only one from the set that’s completely and utterly joyous.” (We chuckled). Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet for Four Violins was moving and expressive, Grans’ Memories from the City of Turku, full of folk and jazz. And then came a bassoon quartet by Stamitz, beautiful in its own right but made playful with added theatrics. When the musicians had to turn the page they also switched part, or instrument, so that the violinist played the viola and the cellist got the bassoon’s melody.
It was cheeky and charming, and was echoed on the second day when each member of the oboe quartet, playing Mozart, stood when they had the melodic line. The choreography continued, the violin and viola playing to each other like a duel, and for a time even rotating their instruments and playing them like celli. Now was this just a gimmick for the audience’s entertainment or was there some deeper meaning? My interpretation is that it was incredibly clever, for it meant the students had to be aware of the inherent structure of the piece. It is impractical to rehearse chamber music from a score; but an ensemble must perform it as if the score is known, the parts balanced, brought together, a pulse set, and kept, without the aid of a tapping foot.
Knowing how to give the music time is one of the hardest things for a young conductor to achieve. To stand before people and set a tempo is one thing, to then feel calm enough to relax that tempo, to hold a silence, that’s something else. Slowly, young conductors learn to shift their energy from their shoulders to their gut, to ground themselves and feel that there is time to make gestural decisions, to know that the sound will not overtake them. The most proficient chamber players produced this sense of calm. They were able to execute their part with an eye and an ear to what was happening around them, producing that thing which we simply call “ensemble.”
I shy from calling the public chamber concert a culmination of the program, as there were standout pieces in the showcases which were in some ways more remarkable for being less formal; but it was a wonderful evening. Stuart Greenbaum’s Mondrian Interiors was complemented by projections of the named Mondrian works, and the way the composer combined the six instruments was a delight to witness live. Beethoven’s String Quartet No.1, Op.18 was sophisticated, Endre Szervánszky’s Woodwind Quintet, sensitively played. The audience was introduced to the music of Erwin Schulhoff and his somewhat unusual combination of flute, viola and double bass, and then came Olli Mustonen’s beautiful String Nonet. The double bass player stood in the centre, violins to one side, celli and violas to the other. The whole ensemble moved as one, but there’s no question the bassist held them together. He knew the piece intricately, knowing just when to catch an eye, and reminded me of my conducting teacher’s sage advice: never forget the bass. They’re the pulse, that low beat on which the other parts must ride. And it is because of that inherent wisdom, made better for being tangible, that I will always love chamber music!