Chamber musicians seek to engage today’s audiences

Student musicians perform classical chamber music.
Student musicians perform classical chamber music. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

The Eli String Quartet, silent in shades of grey, walked onto the stage of Morse Recital Hall. But instead of sitting to play Béla Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 3,” second violinist Shawn Moore ’13 lifted a microphone to speak.

A Monday night concert titled “Vista: A Fresh Look at Chamber Music,” showcased four out of about 50 chamber music ensembles in the School of Music. Director of Chamber Music Wendy Sharp said that in addition to giving students an opportunity to perform full chamber works, the performance was intended to offer audiences a “fresh look at chamber music” by having group members comment on the composer and the history of the work before playing each piece.

The onstage commentary made the atmosphere “a little less formal, gave insight into the piece, and provided a hook into the piece,” Sharp said. Hearing directly from the performers puts a “more human face” on the music, she added.

In the concert’s first performance, an ensemble comprising two violins, a cello and a harpsichord performed two pieces by Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel, adding improvisation to the written music. In the preceding commentary, violinist Holly Piccoli ’12 noted that the musicians composed all the ornamentation and embellishments of trills and turns on the spot. Baroque improvisation brings spontaneity to a classical music concert, the group’s coach Robert Mealy, a professor at the School of Music, added.

Verbal communication is one approach that classical musicians have taken to engage today’s audiences — to break a stigma of inaccessibility, classical musicians need to emphasize education and outreach in their performances, said Sharp.

Conversation from the stage makes the experience of listening to classical music friendlier and “more personal,” said violinist Geoffrey Herd ’12. Some professional musicians today hold pre-concert discussions that help them connect with and welcome the audience, double bassist Nicholas Jones ’12 added.

Chamber music is uniquely suited for engaging audiences, Sharp said, because the groups are small, and audience members tend to sit closer to the performers.

“It’s up-close, exciting and visceral,” she said. “You see how exactly they pass melodies and shape the music.”

Kikuei Ikeda, who coaches the Eli String Quartet, said chamber music is a “democratic” style of music, as there is no conductor and each musician must contribute to the interpretation of the work. Ikeda is the second violinist in the Tokyo String Quartet, the School of Music’s current artist-in-residence group.

Outside of Yale, some chamber groups have begun to perform in more casual performance spaces. Many bars and clubs on the West Coast and at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, for example, now feature classical musicians, Mealy said. Last year, the Chiara String Quartet toured nationally at bars and clubs to fulfill their slogan of “chamber music in any chamber,” according to the Seattle newspaper Crosscut.

On campus, some musicians create fresh performances by collaborating with visual artists, Piccoli said. Recent shows by School of Music students have included light shows and incorporated dance into the staging, she said.

Live-streaming concerts such as “Vista” has also altered the way audiences receive classical music, Piccoli said, adding that while internet access may draw audiences away from live performances, musicians hope that live-streaming will inspire people to attend more concerts.

Before performing the last piece in Monday’s program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3,” violinist Hen-Shuo Steven Chang ’13 discussed how the piece portrays Beethoven’s struggles and perseverance in the face of hearing loss. The foreboding introduction, he explained, transforms into heroic triumph.

“The dynamic fugue has moments of conflict and opposition,” said Chang of the piece’s fourth movement. “But they also have moments of unity seeking hope.”

Chamber groups regularly perform lunchtime concerts at Morse Recital Hall and the Yale Center for British Art.

Correction: Feb. 29

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Kikuei Ikeda, the coach of the Eli String Quartet. The article also misattributed a quote from violinist Geoffrey Herd ’12 to Colin Brookes ’13.

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