Culture Conversations: Music
Trios and Quartets and Quintets, Oh My!
Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City brings world class chamber music to your backyard.
by Becky Durham
For me, talking about chamber music is almost as inspiring as listening to chamber music -- especially with those who are passionate about it. I had the opportunity to spend a delightful hour with a group of dedicated individuals who demonstrate not only their love of chamber music, but an earnest desire to share it with all who will come and listen. Our community is indebted to this band of Chamber Music lovers who have unselfishly devoted themselves to bringing the best in the world to our own “backyard”.
It was a dark and stormy night
The Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City was born at a Halloween party in the fall of 1966. Some friends had gathered in the Avenues and founding member Gale Dick recalls discussing chamber music with another guest at the party. Dick had just arrived in Utah from the University of Illinois and Bernadette Velick had recently moved from St. Louis. Both missed the chamber music concerts they found to be prevalent elsewhere and began discussing the possibility of bringing professional chamber ensembles to Salt Lake. As they explored creating such a series they were a bit “timid” because it was a huge commitment. Fortunately Velick had started just such a series in St. Louis and knew of a foundation that offered funds to music series just starting out. The original board members generously contributed personal funds to grant money and were able to underwrite the first season. Now embarking on their 46th season, the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City continues to select the world’s premiere chamber music ensembles and make it possible for Utah audiences to drive just a few miles and spend about 1/3 of the ticket price charged in other cities to experience the intimacy of music in its smaller forms.
Dick says that “of the original group [the founders] there was a large proportion that were themselves amateur chamber music players and knew how much fun this could be and how much we wanted to hear chamber music.” Former Deseret News writer Harold Lundstrom wrote a column promoting the Society’s first concert with the headline “A Rare Occasion: Founders Concert.” He admonished readers to acquire “memberships” which were limited to the 300 seats available in the venue – the “old” Salt Lake City Library -- and suggested the membership would “not only be a high privilege but prestigious.” The concert took place on February 7, 1967 featuring the Juilliard String Quartet who played Schubert, Bartok, and Beethoven. Works by Haydn and Debussy were also performed in that first season, as were “newer” chamber music works by Charles Ives and Elliot Carter.
Why Chamber Music?
“Chamber music” is difficult to define, but not to describe. It became known as such because hundreds of years ago music lovers wanted to listen and play music that could be performed in a chamber or salon. Music composed for these smaller spaces resulted in trios, quartets, quintets, and occasional sextets, septets and octets. People often have different ideas as to what Chamber Music is, but the word “intimate” frequently arises. Chamber Music Society board member Carter Foss prizes the “variety” heard in Chamber Music and often finds it to be a more interesting form of music. Dick emphatically points out that composers “lavished their attention” on Chamber Music and that the “greats were attracted” to composing music for small ensembles. (Haydn composed approximately 78 string quartets, 80 string trios, and 32 piano trios, Mozart introduced the newly invented clarinet into chamber work repertoire, Beethoven’s late string quartets are considered to be among the greatest and most profound of his works.) The Society’s Treasurer and Historian Paul Griffin describes a string quartet as “pure” music. He loves to “follow each of the four voices” and experience the lines that intertwine. Goethe described the genre as being akin to “four rational voices conversing.”
Moving Chamber Music into the 21st Century
As I talked with these Chamber Music enthusiasts I was impressed with the vision that launched the series and the drive that has kept it alive for forty-five seasons. Griffin calculates that over the course of the series’ four decades 169 ensembles have participated and audiences have enjoyed over 500 compositions. Occasionally the organization faced some challenges, but overcame them all with perseverance. They have maintained a level of enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and camaraderie that is rare. What began as a three-concert season has expanded to seven. The concerts moved from the Library to the Art and Architecture building on the U of U campus, but they now call Libby Gardner Concert Hall “home.” Ensembles from all over the world know of the reputation of Salt Lake’s Chamber Music Society and readily accept the invitations proffered. Carter Foss, head of the “Talent Committee” is already busy booking groups into 2013. The eight-member committee works to select primarily quartets and trios that they believe Utah audiences will enjoy. Foss transports the guests to and from the airport and is witness to the enthusiasm of the artists who marvel at the acoustic and inviting space of Libby Gardner Concert Hall. In recent years the Society has branched out a bit by presenting new music ensembles such as “eighth blackbird” and The Brazilian Guitar Quartet that proved to be one of the most popular programs they have presented.
The Society’s series has a devoted core audience, but eagerly seeks new listeners. Current board president Melissa Mullins represents a new generation of Chamber Music fans. An art and math teacher at Evergreen Jr. High, she finds Chamber Music to be the “perfect combination of math and music.” She generously gives of her time to maintain the quality of the series as well as implementing new programs to encourage younger music enthusiasts to understand and enjoy Chamber Music. Youth performers are invited to perform in the lobby before the concerts and then, along with their parents, stay to enjoy the featured artists. In addition, the guest artists offer master-classes for students at the University of Utah as well as local high school students. Melissa points out that audience attendance has grown due to the pre-concert talks presented by Ardean Watts who “packs” the room. The audience’s experience is enriched even more in-depth by program notes found in the printed programs. Assisting Mullins in promoting the series is Naomi Feigel who currently serves as publicist. She is a former board president and ideal example of one who came to Chamber Music “late.” She “knew nothing about music” but was delighted to find that after repeated experiences with the genre she discovered that she “loved it.” Now she relishes the sounds. Feigel contributes countless hours and is a perfect advocate, demonstrating that Chamber Music is for everybody.
The Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City was created by those who loved music, who volunteered their time, and who donated their money to create a world-class series. Still an all-volunteer organization, the series is nearing its 50 year mark and going strong. There will always be new interpretations of familiar works, new ensembles, and new compositions to discover. We are fortunate to have such a resource available to us. The price is right, the venue exquisite, the artists are the best of the best and it’s all in our own backyard.