The splendor of the New York Philharmonic's ensemble playing can make listeners forget that this orchestra is composed of 106 virtuoso musicians. This can easily be rectified by treating yourself to one of the many opportunities New York City offers to hear their individual talents in a variety of chamber music settings.
This season brings two series that pair Orchestra musicians with renowned pianists. This month, H_lne Grimaud will be collaborating with Philharmonic musicians at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the second concert in the new partnership with the museum. The series at the 92nd Street Y, which will feature Emanuel Ax on March 9 and Lang Lang on April 13, is resuming by popular demand. But the Orchestra's flagship chamber series is the Philharmonic Ensembles at Merkin Concert Hall, set to return on January 13. And let's not for-get the Saturday Matinee Concerts, held at Avery Fisher Hall, that spotlight chamber masterworks in the first half of each program.
Ms. Grimaud's December 16 recital at The Metropolitan Museum comes on the heels of her performance with the New York Philharmonic of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. She relishes this dual opportunity. "I like to think of the concerto collaboration as chamber music on a large scale," she says. "Then, working individually with the musicians for the chamber concert creates another level of intimacy. Playing Schumann and Brahms with them, which is my core repertoire from the Romantics, is even more meaningful. You grow so much from these situations — as an artist and as a person."
Mr. Ax, a frequent Philharmonic guest, shares many of these sentiments. "When you perform a concerto, you are really just playing a big piece of chamber music," he says, so for me, the 92nd Street Y program is not all that different — there are just fewer people." He adds, "Also, this will be old home week for me: Sheryl Staples (violin), Carter Brey (cello), and Cynthia Phelps (viola) are all good friends of mine, and people that I have shared the stage with many times."
The Philharmonic Ensembles series, now in its 24th year, is the one that the musicians truly call their own. It provides a showcase for Orchestra members, and the players run the series themselves. An elected committee programs the six concerts each season, choosing from the long list of musicians who have proposed specific repertoire.
Glenn Dicterow, the Philharmonic's Concertmaster and a member of the Chamber Music Committee, explains how small ensemble performance promotes musical development. "It gives the Orchestra musicians a chance to show what they sound like as individuals," he says. "Playing chamber music really forces you to heighten your senses and be more flexible — it gives your playing more refinement."
"If there were more venues, there would be even more people signing up," said violist Dorian Rence, another Committee member. "This series gives us something that playing in the orchestra doesn't. When you play with an orchestra, your main job is to express the conductor's artistic vision. Here, you have an opportunity to express your own vision and get more solo exposure than we ordinarily do."
A glance at this year's Merkin series shows the participants' vast range of musical taste. The repertoire encompasses music from the Classical era to the present day, and includes the rarely performed String Quartet by Verdi and Stravinsky's Suite from The Soldier's Tale. Works by contemporary composers are also represented. One example is Ballade, Pastorale and Dance by Eric Ewazen, a Juilliard professor and composer; it will be performed in June by a trio that includes flutist Renée Siebert. She first heard this piece three years ago, and immediately wanted to perform it. "Who knew that flute, horn, and piano could work so well together? In this series you can put together unusual ensembles from an incredible pool of musicians."
The Ensembles series yields other happy results. Six years ago horn player Erik Ralske, another Committee member, played a woodwind quintet for a single Merkin concert. "We had such a good time that we wanted to explore more of the repertoire," he remembers. Thus was born the Philharmonic Quintet of New York.
Principal Cellist Carter Brey, another Committee member, admits that programming the Ensembles series can be a logistical headache, but maintains that it is well worth the effort. "There is so much chamber music in New York City," he observes, "it's easy to overlook the fact that you have this band of 100 and more superb players. It's great to unleash them and hear them work out such beautiful repertoire at such a high level."
Stephanie Stein Crease is a music journalist and author who writes about classical music and jazz.