For this last concert, I sat up on the edge of the cliff that is the balcony of Libby Gardner Concert Hall. The sound up here is dream edged, and rounded just a little by the journey across the golden room. I usually sit front and center, where the sound is sharply detailed, river fresh and cold enough to make your wrist ache. Much like water on a body, a good swim requires brisker water than a relaxing bath. The seats here give an overview of the stage, which seemed like the perfect way to view the larger scale performance. The sacrifice of a lofty perch is a bit of removal from the experience, which for me, as a result, was less intense and more remote. I was almost too relaxed.
Johannes Brahms wrote the songs which began this concert between 1864 and 1874, a decade which produced a large number of solo songs and choral works, many of them introspective and focused on solitude and loneliness. With this group of songs, on the rather gloomy theme of lost love and reflective walks in the wilderness, Brahms’ piano demanded as much attention as the singing, or so it felt through the first few pieces. As I relaxed into it, a kind of transmutative trance took me deeper into the emotion of the songs. The anxious theme of Ach! Wende diesen Blick, (Ah, Turn away this gaze), took a minute to draw me in, but finally, I was on a swan boat in the sunlight of the fine tone and sincere emotion of Michael Chipman's singing Von ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love).
Schonberg's chamber symphony, a reaction to the super large-scale romantic symphonies of the late 19th century, (think “Mahler's 8th,” the so called “Symphony for a Thousand”), is a one movement, fully imagined piece using a full set of the fewest members of the orchestra. So we see all the odd bird reed instruments and horns and whistles big and small in addition to the strings in their fewer flavors. The usually sparsely populated stage was a little overwhelmed that day, filled with so many faces from our own Utah Symphony, and especially the great young Conductor Thierry Fischer.
Thomas Osborne's “Warm It Up” is a solo percussion piece by a member of the Rice University music mafia which also includes Jason Hardink, the artistic director of Nova, and the percussionist who played the piece, Matthew McCLung. Now a professor at the University of Hawaii (Thomas-Osborne.com), the piece was written in a fever, literally. Its feverishness comes through in a dramatic arc, from rousing, closed-eye brushwork into a thunderstorm of noise finishing with a rain of sticks, sheet music and music stand when, with a Polynesian flavored scream, Mr. McClung cast all the tools of the drum aside and tore from the stage. Wow. A great storm for the final Nova show of the year.
Finally, as a bookend to the Schonberg “Chamber Symphony,” we heard John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony,” again using a full complement of musicians and this time with the addition of a synthesizer in the back center, and trap set (what you would recognize as a drum kit), on the back left of the stage. A direct commentary on the earlier work, but also an account of the goofy and mechanical changes classical music has adopted both in time and instrumentation, it sounded like cartoon music and stylized computer music, maybe cut into strips, thrown in the air, and taped back together again. It was fun but hard to follow. I suspect that was the point, in any case.
So, you may ask, “Why go to chamber music concerts?” Because the music is extraordinary, and you haven't heard it before, or actually, you probably have, somewhere, but not like this. Live is the only way to hear chamber music, it’s the difference between a storm on television, and a storm from your porch. Not only that, but chamber music has a devoted following, many of the same people go to all the shows. Each concert is a shared experience, and an only experience. These concerts are not repeated over the weekend like the symphony or opera. Also, these experiences are more intimate than the symphony, these concerts are little secrets in a box. Chamber music is all around us––in film, disguised as Muzak, at weddings and shopping malls, even in cartoons. Chamber music is in the soundtrack of our lives. There is no jazz in this town, and you already go to all the rock, pop, country and blues shows you want. It isn’t a greased pig. You can catch it.