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Why I Don’t Play Chamber Music

(written April, 1999)

OK, of course I play chamber music. That was just a hyperbolic title to get your attention.

Nevertheless, I have found there to be a wide gap between the hype and the reality of playing chamber music.

In music school they tell you chamber music is the ultimate, lofty summit of classical music. Every string player in an orchestra yearns to be playing string quartets. Almost all professional classical musicians say, if it were a perfect world, they would dump everything they are now doing to make money and play chamber music.

Chamber music's virtue, it is said, is its intimacy and its uncanny power to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In contrast, orchestral playing is purely mechanical. You follow the orders of the conductor -- where's the humanity in that? Yet the conductor is generally deemed to be necessary for there are just too many players to coordinate without one.

Performing solo is of course at least a higher artistic pursuit than orchestral playing, but the interest in chamber music is said to be the merging of the artistic ideas and strengths of several people, which by logic ought to result in a more fuller, highly-layered, and satisfying listening experience.

Chamber music also allows for spontaneity. The players, as in a jazz combo, can feed off each other and play above themselves. There is a flexibility that a larger group cannot harness.

All this is good in theory. But in reality? People carry over their orchestral experience into the chamber music field. They know their own part very well, but have only a vague notion of the rest of the score. Most of the rehearsal time is taken up, like orchestral rehearsals, with the mechanics of entrances, tempo transitions, getting bowing and breathing together, correcting intonation. I am sure in my lifetime far less than 1% of all chamber music rehearsal time has been devoted to interpretive discussion. In fact, there frequently exists a hovering atmosphere that subtly deters even raising questions of interpretation. Chamber musicians get distinctly uncomfortable speaking of interpretation or form, whereas they will happily take the time to argue over whether the second note of a quarter-note triplet was too late.

Has playing in orchestras and bands, where interpretation is spoon-fed from the mighty conductor, drained instrumentalists' minds? Is the reason artistic ideas are scarcely presented at chamber music rehearsals that players have no ideas to begin with? Is the reason compositional architecture is a taboo topic performers' festering hatred of their conservatory's theory, composition, and ear-training classes? And whose fault is that?

The predictable result of the mechanical nature of most chamber music rehearsals is a middle-of-the-road conservatism at concert-time. If you don't really know what your group is doing, better to play it safe. After all, it would be embarrassing not to be together at measure 214, you know. The predominant attitude of most chamber musicians ensures that the whole will be less, not more, than the sum of its parts.

In my observation, when a brave individual does venture forward ideas at rehearsals, these are usually stomped on quite promptly by others. After all, an idea from one individual is usually highly suited to that person's underlying motor patterns. Normally, it will "feel wrong" to the others. The middle of the road prevails, and a message to the shyer members of the group is heard -- better to be real sure of yourself before you put forward an idea at a rehearsal, unless you have a masochistic streak.

If I'm supposed to be picking up interpretative decisions at a rehearsal by osmosis, by some general feeling that magically results from playing the piece through a few times, I'm not getting it. Why not use the English language (accompanied by demonstration of details)? Or did musicians resent having to take the occasional English class at music school as well?

It may be true that when a quartet or quintet clicks it is the most amazing experience on the planet, but I'd rather hear the artistic freedom of a solo performer or the concentrated articulation of a conductor's vision with an orchestra or chorus on most days of the week. Chamber music concerts to me tend to be dull, and for this, chamber musicians really have no one to blame but themselves.

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)