Chamber Music with More Wine and Fewer Stagehands

Anyone who knows me would find it hard to believe that I attended a Mozart birthday concert this past weekend. Yet that’s exactly what I did on Saturday night. Since then I have a new found respect for live presentations of standard repertoire chamber music, even on so-called modern instruments! These days, this has been music I usually experience only on recordings (mostly featuring period instruments), my concert-attending time being mostly reserved for world premieres and other such fare. But, the secret was that this wonderful concert did not take place in a concert hall.

I learned at the Chamber Music America conference that the newly-formed Athabasca String Trio would be performing a brand new string trio by Andrew Waggoner. He and I had spoken a few times over the years but I’d never heard any of his music live, but I had fond memories of the string quartets that appeared on a CRI CD (which will hopefully get reissued by New World in the not-too-distant future). I’m also interested in writing a string trio myself. So I told the group’s violist, Tawnya Popoff, that I would attend. A few days later, she sent me an email telling me to RSVP and to bring a bottle of wine! What kind of a concert was this?

Turns out that the “concert”—which featured two back-to-back performances of Waggoner’s brief but tremendous Aubade and Mozart’s monumental six-movement Divertimento K. 563—was the centerpiece of an elaborate dinner party given by Michael Tracy, a fan of classical music with a wonderful apartment and an impeccable sense of taste in art, food, and wine. A little over an hour after the party began, the chatty attendees who were scattered all over the place, grabbed foldable chairs, and miraculously transformed themselves into a remarkably attentive concert music audience. It’s never been so quiet in Avery Fisher Hall! Michael spoke briefly to ease the crowd into the music—many faces did not seem like the folks I see in the music venues I frequent—and then the performers did the rest. At home, I drink red wine while hearing things like the three carefully intertwined lines of counterpoint in the Divertimento’s fourth movement all the time, but being able to do so during a live performance made the music breathe differently. Isn’t this how chamber music is supposed to be experienced anyway? Then, after a little less than an hour’s worth of music, the apartment transformed back into a party and chatty conversations resumed only now music became their recurring theme.

On the other hand, last night was the second installment in my annual pilgrimage to Juilliard to attend the Focus Festival, a week-long saturation of contemporary music. This year’s theme is music composed in the past year, none of it yet available on recordings, so I’m basically camped out there every night this week. While there was a great deal of music that I was deeply moved by—there was a slow movement in a new piece for flute, clarinet, and piano by Derek Bermel that might be the most beautiful thing he’s ever written and the interplay between clarinet and string trio in Mario Davidovsky’s new Quartetto No. 4 is very impressive—I was less than moved by the trappings that this music comes with in such a presentation. The first piece on the program involved piano and percussion. The second was scored for just viola and harp. In the third, the piano returned to accompany viola and a singer. So, after the first piece, three guys had to come on stage to put the piano in the corner only to return a few minutes later after the second piece to bring it back for the third. The entire process took longer than some of the music. I don’t want to insult anyone here, but it felt like a Monty Python sketch. If this took place in certain clubs in the East Village, the audience would start throwing bottles at the stage!

And then there was the huge hall, which has better acoustics than most and is great for a large ensemble, but sometimes the quieter moments of the pieces on this chamber music program seemed like grains of sand on the beach, easily ignored when stepped on but unpleasant when they get into your clothing. There’s also no way to eliminate everyone’s personal sounds which are ironically even more pronounced in an environment where everyone is supposed to be quiet. Everyone’s always claiming there are no decent halls to play chamber music in this town; why not just play it in your own homes!

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