a musical dialogue

by erin thursby
You might call chamber music a musician’s pleasure, their time to take a bow. While an orchestra is a grand thing, to be sure, it doesn’t allow each artist to shine individually. The purpose of an orchestra is focused on the music as a whole, not the performers.
One of the founders of the San Marco Chamber Music society, Ellen Olson, enjoys the difference between orchestral and chamber music. She recently began the group with a number of local notable musicians, including her husband Eric, who also plays the oboe for the Symphony. Ellen has played the viola for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years, but finds chamber music to be liberating because she has more say as to what to play and what goes into the music.
“I still have to agree with other people,” she says, “but I feel like I have a lot more control over my artistic product.” Instruments that don’t normally get a solo in orchestra pieces, like Ellen Olson’s viola, can get a chance to take center stage at a chamber concert.
Everything from classical, jazz, vocal performers, dueling pianists and the occasional banjo and sitar are part of chamber music today. The first chamber music concerts were played in large rooms in the mansions and castles of the elite. Sometimes they were paid artists; sometimes they were a string quartet made up of four daughters of a rich landowner. Here in Jacksonville today, they range from local JSO artists looking for a slightly different musical outlet to national and international stars on the chamber music circuit.
Musicians describe chamber music as more intimate than orchestral concerts. This can be a little puzzling to an audience member because most modern chamber music isn’t held in someone’s study or dining room, as it was when the genre was first dubbed. Instead, they are held in concert halls. In Jacksonville, you’ll find most of the chamber music at churches or benefit dinners.
The locally-based San Marco Chamber Music Society holds their concerts in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, notable for its onsite harpsichord and marvelous acoustics. Most of the Riverside Fine Arts season, held at the Church of the Good Shepard, can also be characterized as chamber music, though they feature national and international artists.
However large or small the venue, up on stage you can pick out each individual as they play and you can even know who’s playing what notes. Unless there’s a solo within the music, you just can’t do that during an orchestral concert.
Performers also say that there’s more of a musical “conversation” between musicians, which contributes to the sense of intimacy. This musical conversation is important enough to the genre that it squeezes out the soloist, who’s simply going to be talking to herself. So it’s always at least two musicians, without a conductor, each listening to cues within the music and answering them with their own instrument.
The difference between chamber music and orchestra music, says Eric Olson is that “there’s more dialogue. There’s always dialogue in an orchestra, but the conductor really controls it. Here you’re working together in a small group and each part has to work together. No one’s conducting.”
Most groups use structured, classical chamber music written for specific instruments. And they have plenty to choose from. Think of a great composer and they’ve probably written chamber music. Some like Schubert, wrote more chamber music than orchestral music. He composed 15 string quartets; his famous quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos; two piano trios; string trios, a piano quintet and an octet for strings and winds. The composer Haydn is given the credit as the father of the chamber music, specifically as the father of the string quartet.
There’s a long tradition of adjusting music to fit the instruments played. Most pieces originally written for one set of instruments can be adjusted to fit the instruments the group is using. It helps to have a talented musical arranger. Even then, your instrument might end up playing longer, higher or lower notes than usual. Some chamber musicians strive to adjust pieces that are a real musical stretch in order to showcase the true range of their instrument.
In the past, Ellen and Eric Olson, the married duo from the San Marco Chamber Society, have adapted pieces meant for the viola and the violin. That means that Eric, who plays the oboe, sometimes has to hold some incredibly long notes. You can hold a note on a violin that you couldn’t hold on a wind instrument because eventually everyone runs out of wind.
Because others have joined the group, Ruxandra Simionescu-Marquardt (JSO) on violin, Christopher Chappell (JSO) on violin, Betsy Federman on cello (JSO) and Bonita Wyke (JU Opera) on piano or harpsichord, they’ve been able to use existing pieces instead of doing a lot of adaptation.
The San Marco Chamber Music Society holds free concerts with tax deductible donations from the public. You can also contribute by buying a bisque doll with a custom dress or a piece of original artwork to benefit the society. Their next concert will be at 7 pm on April 26th at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 3976 Hendricks Avenue. Part of the concert will feature a violin concerto in A minor by J.S. Bach, performed by violinist Ruxandra Marquardt, accompanied by small chamber orchestra. For more information on the musicians of the group, how to donate and upcoming concerts go to sanmarcochambermusic.org