Six summer concerts offer a “less fearsome” way to start conversations about classical music.
THE "MUSIC OF FRIENDS" is how chamber music is sometimes described, due to its requirements of good-natured give-and-take during performance. Goethe described the string quartet as “four rational people conversing.” Cooperation and connection are a fundamental part of the genre, and there is less separation between audience and performers than there would be in a large concert hall.
It seems fitting, then, that the Victoria Summer Music Festival (VSMF) affords both performers and listeners ample opportunities to engage in musical conversation.
Arthur Rowe, pianist and artistic director of the VSMF, says the delight of bringing together a community of musicians, together with the “human-scale experience” of chamber music, inspire him to create the programming for the festival, now in its twenty-first season. Rowe explains that while the concerts in the series typically sell out, and the enterprise has a very loyal following, chamber music provides a “less fearsome entry point” for those who might otherwise shy away from the perceived “stuffiness” of symphony concerts. He hopes a few more “newbies” will be inspired to attend concerts this year, all held at UVic’s Phillip T Young Recital Hall from July 26 to August 11.
The formality often associated with classical music “is not something one feels in summer festivals,” Rowe remarks. “It’s a very open and friendly atmosphere; we try to encourage that personal connection with a pre-concert talk with the musicians who are featured that night.”
The talks start around 6:40, concerts at 7:30. “A surprising number of audience members really enjoy them, and we get a pretty full house coming to the talks as well. There’s a loose, joking atmosphere discussing the music, and the performers take questions from the audience.”
I had a few questions of my own for Rowe, regarding what exactly constitutes “chamber music.” At what point is a performance either too few, or too many musicians to fit the moniker? “We think of chamber music as anything that involves at least two players,” he explains.
“The limit goes up to a nanette—nine players—and once you get to ten, you’re talking about a small chamber orchestra. There are a number of octets written as well; anything up to eight or nine is considered chamber music.”
I then enquire about the two-performer thing. Rowe, as a pianist, has performed for decades, throughout the world and at the University of Victoria, where he is acting director of the School of Music. Does he see himself as an accompanist when he plays a duet with a violinist, for example? “A violin and piano is still chamber music, not a violin recital,” Rowe insists. So what constitutes a recital, then? A soloist? Rowe chuckles. “Yes, I’d say a soloist is giving a recital.”
He says delineating between “recital” and “chamber music” also depends on the repertoire. “Certainly as a pianist, if you’re playing a showpiece with violin—or just a lovely lyrical ballad—you are, in a sense, trying to support the other instrument. Whereas if you’re playing a Brahms violin sonata, the piano is equal to—or even more important than—the violin. No matter what I’m playing, I think of it as an equal partnership. That doesn’t mean I need to be louder or heard more; it means we are both working together to create the best possible interpretation of that music.”
The collaborative flavour of music performed without a conductor also seems to lead to a convivial atmosphere in the social circles of chamber music quartets and trios performing in Canada. Rowe explains that a few of the VSMF concerts have overlapping musicians, and the first concert of the series is a well-loved, double-bass-and-piano duo who bring together 18 bassists from across the globe to workshop and then perform on stage in an offering called “Basses Loaded.”
Gary Karr is on the double bass, and Harmon Lewis, piano. This concert for VSMF will be their last, marking their official retirement. Karr will spend the month of July leading the 18 participants at the KarrKamp summer bass workshop. The concert will include Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, also known as “The Joke,” due to its teasing of the audience with a series of “false” endings. Ravel and Coulthard will also be on the program. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of the 220 audience members taking in this farewell performance, it will likely be a memorable one.
Another somewhat unusual offering on the VSMF menu is a concert featuring songs. That’s right—a singer in a chamber music festival. Again, I’m a bit surprised, thinking that somehow, singers can’t be part of “chamber music,” instead being relegated to “recitals” as soon as they’ve stepped away from an orchestra.
Yet a little research yields the information that during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, it was singers who anchored the “chamber music” experience, and the instruments just played along with the vocal lines. Of course this evolved into instrument-only compositions, but throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, vocalists were most definitely part of the chamber music mix.
Mezzo-soprano Anita Krause will perform some of that 19th Century repertoire—Beethoven, to be exact—singing with the Duke Trio and offering Ludwig Van’s rarely performed Scottish Songs for Voice, Violin, Cello, and Piano. What a perfect Canadian offering, I enthuse. “And this is not a transcription,” Rowe explains, saying these songs were actually written originally for that format. So why is it so very rare to hear voices performing chamber music?
“We think of chamber music as an instrumental thing,” Rowe says, “yet a number of composers, such as Schubert and Brahms, wrote for voice. The intimacy of a vocal program fits very well within the chamber music festival concept.”
The real issue, says Rowe, is logistics. Outside of an academic setting, where you have a static pool of musicians and vocalists to draw from, touring quartets and trios don’t typically bring along a singer. It just so happens, though, that Krause is the wife of the Duke Trio’s cellist, Thomas Wiebe, making this grande finale concert a very “friendly” one indeed.
There are six concerts being offered in the summer festival, with a “bonus” concert happening in October, performed by violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong. “It’s a special fall concert that we wouldn’t ordinarily be putting on,” says Rowe. “James will be on a cross-Canada tour, and asked if there was any chance they could do something in Victoria. I knew we could present it, so I wanted us to be part of that, and I’m glad it’s worked out.”
2016 Victoria Summer Music Festival: “Basses Loaded XX,” Tuesday, July 26, 7:30pm; The Lafayette String Quartet, Thursday, July 28, 7:30pm; Cecilia String Quartet and Arthur Rowe, piano, Wednesday, August 3, 7:30pm; Ensemble Made in Canada, Saturday, August 6, 7:30pm; St John, Wei, Rowe, and Krause, Tuesday, August 9, 7:30pm; Duke Trio and Anita Krause, Thursday, August 11, 7:30pm. All summer concerts at Phillip T Young Recital Hall, UVic. In addition to the summer festival, the VSMF will offer an autumnal concert featuring acclaimed violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong on October 20. Tickets: vmsf.org or call 250-294-7778.
Writer and communication facilitator Mollie Kaye sings in what she now realizes could be called a chamber ensemble, performing close-harmony a cappella classics from the 1940s and ’50s.
Edited by admin