Chamber music provides intimacy and variety

The stage at Carnegie Hall was rather empty last Monday evening. The usual dozens of chairs, arsenal of percussion instruments, and conductor’s podium were not there. Rather, there was only a piano, two chairs, and two stands set up in the middle of the stage.

At the dimming of the lights, the large audience fell silent. Three musicians came out and sat in the pool of light illuminating the center of the stage. With little flourish, they began playing Brahms’ trio for violin, horn, and piano.

The Trio Johannes, named after Johannes Brahms, performed all of their namesake’s trios over two nights at Carnegie Hall with guest William Caballero, principal horn of our own Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. They played with the elegance and shy restraint that marks much of Brahms’ music. Each performer had total control over his instrument; the pianist was accurate and articulate in the running octaves that open the second movement, and sublime in the solo chords that open the third, allowing the bass sonorities to overlap. Caballero controlled his instrument well, blending into the accompaniment when he had to, and playing very melodically when he was in the foreground.

The Trio Johannes’ interpretation of the horn trio was congenial. One almost wishes that they had played with more sentiment, but that they denied it to us made it all the more sweet. In the dramatic C minor trio for the standard violin, piano, and cello, the Trio played with fire while keeping the ensemble tight.

Part of the appeal of concerts like this is the intimacy. “There’s a lot of variety. It’s so much more intimate, too. People like the idea of smaller settings,” said Luz Manriquez, a pianist in CFA. Concerts like the Trio’s concert are often held in smaller venues like Carnegie Hall, as opposed to the vastly larger Heinz Hall.

Trios, quartets (for two violins, viola, and cello), sonatas (solo instrument typically with piano accompaniment), and lieder (singer and piano accompaniment) are a few types of chamber music. Chamber music is fairly economical, relying on just a few performers. The quartet is often said to be the most difficult type of composition for a composer to write.

“In writing a successful quartet, composers have to turn inward and look for their most personal musical message, with little tools to disguise it and make it superficially attractive,” said Saul Bitran, a violinist in the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. “This has been the case with composers like Beethoven, Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos, etc., who wrote magnificent and brilliant orchestral pieces, but it is in their quartets where we find their deepest and most personal language.”

Indeed, Beethoven wrote 24 quartets and numerous trios. Shostakovich wrote 15 quartets. His quartets reveal some of his greatest feelings of sadness, stemming from Stalin’s brutality, that the Soviet authorities tried to suppress in his symphonies. One might say that if symphonies are public speeches, then chamber pieces are the diary entries and letters of composers.

Chamber ensembles are unique in classical music. While many musicians have long relationships with orchestras, chamber ensembles have a “very intense relationship,” in the words of Manriquez.

Bitran elaborated on this point. “The sheer intensity with which a professional string quartet develops its career is a tough survival test for four individuals who have to spend a great deal of time together. In the process of a rehearsal, one is scrutinized by the same four people with whom you will be spending the rest of the afternoon,” he said.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano will mark its 25th anniversary in 2007. Many other quartets — such as the Amadeus, Emerson, Juilliard, and Kronos quartets — have stayed together for over 25 years. The Beaux Arts Trio has been around for over 50 years, although two of the original members have changed.

Many of the superstar soloists of the century have played chamber music in addition to concertos and solo literature. Andres Cardennes, a member of the CFA faculty, is the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony. However, he also plays a lot of chamber music and is a member of a piano trio.

Chamber music has an interesting culture. There is a great tradition of festivals in America as well as in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, the most venerable festival is perhaps the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, created in 1951 by several great chamber musicians, including Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin.

Chamber music is popular among conservatory students. According to Manriquez, “they love it. The only thing is that it’s time consuming, but people love it. They develop the skill of listening to others.”

Bitran feels that conservatories concentrate too much on preparing students for solo careers. He said, “I would like to see changes in curriculae that would encourage students to take up chamber music as a very serious matter. CMU’s school of music has a strong chamber program.”

Chamber music distills music to its simplest — and in many ways most potent — elements. It is also a very personal musical expression. There are many opportunities in Pittsburgh to hear great chamber music played by excellent groups like the Trio Johannes in small, intimate venues. The Trio Johannes concert was part of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society’s series of concerts, which are held in Carnegie Hall about once a month.