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Friday, August 26, 2011

Anybody remember the 20th century?

I posted the original version of this in my personal blog about my life and work as a (primarily orchestral) trombone player and teacher.


The Bard Festival is a great annual event, doing tremendous service to the larger musical community by bringing attention to a single composer, giving a fantastic survey of his (or her…at some point) work and its context. Reading the review of this year’s festival, featuring Jean Sibelius, in The New York Times, I was reminded of a thought that has occurred to me several times over the last couple of years – sometimes in the form of a late-night rant over fine single-malt scotch, complete with my fist pounding on the table (by the way, anybody who would like to see me get past my normal even keel should give me scotch and get me talking about orchestra programming or baseball television rights).

Orchestras are often accused of ignoring today’s composers, slipping into irrelevance by losing touch with contemporary music, but it seems to me that the problem with orchestra programming starts before that. I don’t have any documentary evidence to back up this assertion, but my distinct sense is that when I was in school and then beginning my career as a professional orchestral musician, the orchestras I played in performed a wider range of music by a wider range of composers – particularly from the 20th century – than they do now. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Vaughan Williams symphony programmed anywhere, and anybody who thinks Vaughan Williams is just “The Lark Ascending” and pastoral English folk song settings should take a listen to his fourth symphony.

The Bard Festival does a wonderful job of highlighting the less well-known works of well-known composers, and it should be an example to orchestras all over the world. When was the last time you heard a Sibelius symphony other than 2 or 5? When was the last time you heard a Shostakovich symphony other than 5, 10, or just maybe 7? Anything by Elgar other than the Cello Concerto or the Enigma Variations? Prokofiev wrote 7 symphonies and a number of other spectacularly exciting orchestral works besides the music to Romeo and Juliet. There was a time when the fantastic string concertos of William Walton were in the regular rotations of soloists and orchestras, and I even see much less Bartok and Hindemith than I used to.

Among American composers, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland have remained in the repertoire, but for a very narrow representation of their output. I have been lucky to play a couple of marvelous symphonies by Roy Harris, and every time I hear a symphonic work by his American contemporaries such as Walter Piston and Howard Hanson, I am impressed with the boldness and muscularity of the mid-20th century American symphonic style.

I don’t think any of this music is neglected because it’s not up to the quality of Tchaikovsky and Brahms; there is a tremendous amount of exciting music that people should have the opportunity to hear, and it’s left off of orchestra seasons simply because it represents a risk. I contend that this kind of risk avoidance has contributed significantly to the perceived irrelevance of orchestras in the United States. Furthermore, we seem to think orchestral audiences are so resistant to anything they don’t know that their attention span for new music can’t extend beyond about 12 minutes. Maybe the breadth of a full-scale symphonic form should be reserved for the most highly accomplished composers, but very few new symphonies are presented, in favor of overtures and other shorter works.

Kudos to the Boston Symphony for programming John Harbison’s fifth symphony again (I was fortunate to play the premiere), along with the premiere of his sixth. Kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for their ongoing American Mavericks series. Kudos to the LA Phil for its ongoing relationship with John Adams and the New York Philharmonic for making big, important news by programming such ambitious works as Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre and Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Kudos to the David Alan Miller and the Albany (NY) Symphony – where I am privileged to play often – for continually putting new music in front of their audience and playing it with such conviction and excitement.

It’s time for more of the smaller orchestras to get on board and be just as relevant to the larger musical culture and their own communities – not by pandering or guessing what will keep the audiences coming in the door based on surveys and focus groups, but by taking leadership roles in our ongoing cultural conversation.


The Times’ follow-up article on the Bard Festival makes the point even more strongly that music has context, and smart programming makes it that much more enjoyable. And furthermore, that WHAT you play is even more important than HOW you play.

Also, I was reminded, during an online discussion of this subject, that another barrier to programming is rental fees from music publishers, which can add up to quite a lot for an orchestra with a smaller budget. Music that is in the public domain is much less expensive to program for this reason. Nobody is served particularly well by the current system, and it has to change.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“of melody yet unknown” This Saturday

Chameleon continues the 2009-2010 season this Saturday, March 27 at 8PM at the Goethe-Institut, 170 Beacon Street in Boston. The program entitled “of melody yet unknown” includes works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Webern, and Kirchner.

View full program details.

About the program:
Very rarely, an artist emerges who transforms an art form forever. On this program we have two such composers, born roughly a century apart, both central to the grand musical tradition of the city of Vienna, whose bold conceptions influenced everybody that followed – even if in opposition. Ludwig van Beethoven appropriated the classical forms of Haydn and Mozart’s generation for the new age of Romanticism, the time of the French Revolution. He was an artist no longer at the service of aristocratic patrons, daringly, even relentlessly, showing the world how the expression of the intensely personal can become the expression of the universal. A revolutionary thinker and iconoclast for sure, Arnold Schoenberg nevertheless considered himself a successor in the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms. He made the case in his famous 1947 essay “Brahms the Progressive” that looking to Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart as progressive composers who wrote music for “adults…[who] think in complexes” would lead to a greater understanding of his own music. Strictly regular phrase lengths and repetitions of thematic material with only insignificant surface variation, such as one finds in any form of “popular” music, he characterizes as “senseless prolixity” essentially on the intellectual level of nursery rhyme. Brahms in particular, with his ability to spin large-scale forms and generate essentially every bit of musical material, from melody to transitional passages, from very simple melodic and harmonic cells, was clearly an inspiration for Schoenberg’s serial techniques. Schoenberg’s most rigorous student, Anton Webern, took the aesthetic of the concise to the extreme, creating works of transparent beauty in which every note, every gesture, is packed with import. Leon Kirchner, who passed away just this past fall after a long and distinguished career, was one of the last great composers with a direct link to Schoenberg, leaving a body of work that was every bit as meticulous as his teacher in the clarity of its internal logic and form.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Brahms and Carmen

I have been reading Jan Swafford‘s marvelous biography of Brahms (available at Amazon), and was delighted to learn that Brahms absolutely loved Bizet’s Carmen, seeing it no less than twenty times.

We love finding these connections, which often reveal themselves long after the concerts have been programmed. Hear Sarasate’s Concert Fantasies on Carmen and Brahms’ f minor Piano Quintet on this coming weekend’s concerts!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Listening Room – Volume 3 – programming “for that transforming touch”

For years, people have been asking how I choose works and how Chameleon’s programs come together. And so, I thought I would attempt to put into words some of the circumstances and processes surrounding “for that transforming touch” on February 6 and 7.

In truth, it’s still a fairly mysterious process to me as well. I only know that a program is complete and finished when it is. How it happens varies from concert to concert. I rely heavily on instinct (our Messiaen program this past October is a good example of this) but sometimes ideas for programs are borne out of bits of trivia, history, or program notes that I come across in my listening and research. Once I decide on the theme, I often construct the entire program in my head before committing it to paper. To be sure, narrowing choices down to the four or five works per Chameleon program is the most challenging part of the process. As always, each concert melds old and new repertoire, but more than that, I try to also present highly varied, though complimentary, textures, colors and instrumentations. Works frequently wait in the wings for years until my instinct tells me I have found just the “right fit.” Each year, I wade through boxes of notes and hundreds of recordings searching for countless hours for the next Chameleon-esque concept. I’m mostly interested in the “extra musical” or human aspects rather than any kind of formal analysis (details about composers’ lives, circumstances surrounding the composition, etc.). In doing so, patterns and themes emerge (ie. folk music, love, loss, duos, trios, musical makeovers, etc.) and so do Chameleon concerts.

This weekend’s program has been nearly a decade in the making as I searched for just the right way to frame Brahms’ amazing Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34. The Quintet has been a favorite work of mine for as long as I can remember. It has taken up permanent residence on my I Pod and goes with me everywhere. I listen to at least portions of it every week and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it still makes me spin, makes me leap, makes me cry… Consequently, it was personally very difficult for me to find a program that I felt was special enough. I’m obviously too close to the piece to be objective, but luck and curiosity helped.

Uncovering Boulez’s Derive I was what made all the difference. At the time, my husband was reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise and we would regularly talk about the book. Ross’ take on Boulez was unflattering to say the least, and since at that point I wasn’t terribly familiar with his music, I promptly added him to my listening list. His chamber music catalogue is quite small and so I thought that after a quick listen, I would confirm that it was terrible, and my curiosity would be sated. Instead, I fell in love with his startling textures and whirls of color, from Derive I in particular. I was so taken that I simply dropped everything else and began to try and figure out a way to include it in a Chameleon program.

In the end Boulez’s title became the unifying theme – music that has been derived from other materials, recomposed or re-imagined. He described it as “one tree spawns many other trees” which was for me a beautiful image of the connectedness of old and new music – a core philosophy that is present in every Chameleon program.

I started collecting lists of “recomposed” pieces with Brahms’ Quintet – which existed first as a string quintet and then as a sonata for 2 pianos – at the top. As it turns out, there are an enormous number of works that fall under this very general category. The next step of narrowing down the choices is something I really cannot explain. Suffice it to say that I make certain that I truly love every work on every Chameleon program, and that I know the combination will give a fully satisfying evening of music.

In this case, I felt that Sarasate’s famous Carmen Fantasy was a natural complement following a long line of instrumental variations and arrangements of operas. In Libby Larsen’s heartbreaking setting of the last words of the wives of Henry VIII, she deftly weaves lute songs by John Dowland, Praetorius, and Thomas Campion throughout. Finally, Irving Fine’s Partita for wind quintet stretches this theme in a direction that unusually analytical for a Chameleon concert. He uses a mode of composition called thematic metamorphosis in which the musical material evolves out of two small melodic fragments and so the entire piece is recomposed at its very core. Which brings us full circle to Brahms, whose masterful spinning of large-scale works from the tiniest motives inspired the twelve-tone method of none other than Arnold Schoenberg, which brings us to the next program in March….

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chameleon Featured in Berkshire Review for the Arts

Chameleon received a wonderful feature in the Berkshire Review for the Arts fall 2009 wrap up.

Check it out at

Monday, January 11, 2010

Listening Room – Volume 2

Despite “best laid plans” it’s taken me nearly 2 months to return to this blog after my first post. Ah, my apologies! Let’s see if we can do better in the New Year.

I’ve just begun my annual systematic cycle through the chamber music recordings on the Naxos online music library. The library contains a tremendous wealth of material and is a great place to discover new works and revisit old favorites – a very “Chameleon” way of listening!

Today’s docket included works by the esteemed American composer Samuel Adler (Albany Records: TROY582). I must admit that was not at all familiar with his music. At first listen, his textures are intriguing and I look forward to devoting some considered time to his large catalogue in the future. The first piece I chose today was “Rocking Horse Winner,” on texts of D.H. Lawrence for soprano, oboe, cello, and piano. Although I enjoyed sections of this brief work, I felt it lacked a cohesiveness from beginning to end and it lost my interest halfway through. The same cannot be said for his Viola Sonata written in 1984. The Sonata is a superb work, flowing, muscular and haunting, and stood up to two consecutive listenings.

Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet, Op. 51 provided a refreshing change of pace (Marco Polo: 8.223811). I dearly love this piece and have been searching for several years for just the right spot on a Chameleon program, with no success. It’s performed less often than his Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, but for me, it’s a much more affecting work, and positively joyous. Today, it sounded like a little breath of spring and was a much needed relief to January’s cold winds.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

“Wordless, Wondrous Things” This Saturday

Chameleon continues the 2009-2010 season this Saturday, November 7 at 8PM at the Goethe-Institut, 170 Beacon Street in Boston. The program entitled “wordless, wondrous things” includes works by Mendelssohn, Magi, Currier, Klughardt, and Schubert.

View full program details.

There are a few tickets still available, but they’re going fast! Order online at or call 617-427-8200.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Listening Room – Volume 1

We are excited to be launching Chameleon’s new blog series entitled the “Listening Room”.

Many people ask me where my programming ideas come from, and in almost every case they stem from what I’m listening to. The sounds themselves serve as the source of inspiration and every piece on every Chameleon concert is something on my iPod – something that I want to hear – not for scholarship, but for love of music.

Every year, I listen to hundreds and hundreds of works. Some I already know and love, some are brand new, and some I am re-discovering. My guiding principles are simple: keep an open ear, an open mind, and an open heart and always be curious.

Since this is a first post, it seems a good place for disclaimers: I don’t just listen to classical chamber music. Shocking but true! Sometimes I need a little break and for me that might mean anything from Edith Piaf to the Beatles to Richard Thompson. I’ve gotten to the age where I’m pretty shy of top 40, but I’ve recently rediscovered my love for ABBA and am enjoying it immensely.

Last week I was positively obsessed with Libby Larsen’s “Corker” for clarinet and percussion, written in 1991. Ms. Larsen describes it as drawn from popular music of the 40s. For me, it feels like film noir – black and white, with characters lurking around smoky, shadowy corners. My recording is by Boston’s own Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. There’s another on Amazon by Innova Recordings. It’s a short work, only 7 minutes long, and so multiple listenings have been on the menu.

Also on my docket were two piano quartets: Beethoven’s Piano Quartet No.3 in C Major, WoO 36 and Dvorak’s 2nd piano quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87. Beethoven’s was written when he was only 15, and although it’s not complex or profound music I adore its light and breezy textures, especially the third movement Rondo. The recording I have is particularly amazing: “Martha Argerich and Friends Live from the Lugano Festival 2005: Chamber Music.”

This week I imagine that my ears will be filled with our upcoming concert program, but check back in mid-November for my next installment.

I hope you enjoy these listening adventures and join in the discussion!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chameleon Gloria Chien performs at Steinert Hall

On Tuesday, October 20, Chameleon Gloria Chien will be featured on the series “An Evening With Steinway” at Steinert Hall at M. Steinert & Sons in downtown Boston. She will be joined by violinist Kristopher Tong, second violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, for a program of works by Mendelssohn, Ravel, Messiaen & Strauss.

The concert is open to the public, but seating is very limited and reservations are required. To reserve your space, email or call 617-426-1900 x222.

An Evening With Steinway
Gloria Chien, piano and Kristopher Tong, violin

Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 7:00 pm
wine & cheese reception to follow

Steinert Hall, M. Steinert & Sons
162 Boylston Street at the Boston Common

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review of Oct 3 concert in Boston Musical Intelligencer

Chameleon Presents Colorful, Inspired Juxtapositions in Season Opener
by Michael Rocha

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble began their 12th season on a high note; many of them, actually. The concert, “Music and All Silence Held,” took place at the Goethe Institut in Boston’s Back Bay on Saturday, October 3. This intriguing chamber group continued their tradition of creative, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining programming. The Chameleons are dedicated to the integration of the arts into everyday life. They Facebook. They blog. They tweet. They donate tickets to worthy organizations. They present one benefit concert each season. All part of a broad and vibrant outreach program. When it comes to concertizing, however, this unique group of top-drawer musicians prefers the intimate confines of the Goethe Institut. What they lose in concertgoers they gain in the utilization of the perfect space for chamber music. The high-ceilinged room was filled to capacity and featured an interesting visual juxtaposition: a decidedly modern art exhibition consisting of large, abstract panels surrounded by the ornate and exceedingly rococo ornamentation of the room

Read the full review here

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