In his new book, Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, New York Philharmonic Program Annotator James M. Keller writes: “A symphony orchestra may thrill us with the vastness of its resources, but a chamber group engages us on an entirely personal level. The musicians are wrapped in a web of intense communication with one another, and their parts, never so numerous as to confuse, project with a clarity that draws listeners in as rapt eavesdroppers on the conversation.”
It is precisely this intimacy, this implicit personal connection, that often lures both musicians and audiences to chamber music performances — and, in particular, to the Philharmonic’s three very different but equally popular chamber music series. In June, audiences will be fortunate to have all three of them on offer: the Very Young People’s Concerts (VYPCs) on June 5 and 6, the Philharmonic Ensembles on June 12, and the Saturday Matinee Concert on June 18.
The last of these series, which is held in Avery Fisher Hall, begins with a chamber music performance by Philharmonic musicians and concludes with symphonic music. Of the Saturday Matinee Concerts, Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps, a frequent participant in the series, says: “The audience is taken on a musical journey that begins in a very intimate way, and then blossoms into the full glory of the entire orchestra. They can also see and hear the players in a much more exposed setting. Many of us have very active chamber music careers outside of the orchestra, and it is really nice to share those skills with our loyal audience, and to have the opportunity to express ourselves to them in such a personal way.”
The June 18 matinee will feature Mozart’s String Quintet in D major performed by Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples, Principal Cello Carter Brey, Ms. Phelps — and, playing second viola, Alan Gilbert, in his third appearance as an instrumentalist on this series. The first was a little more than a month after he began his tenure as the Orchestra’s Music Director, as second violin in Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major; the second was last June, when he served as second viola for Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2. “I regularly join musicians for chamber music when I’m guestconducting, and from the very start I was determined to play chamber music with musicians from the New York Philharmonic,” Alan Gilbert explains. “It’s a wonderful way to make a special compact with the musicians, since there’s something so direct about playing chamber music.” He observes that, in the Mozart string quintet, the second viola is “the instrument that is added to the normal string quartet,” noting that it’s the part that “Mozart himself often played in his quintets” and that he feels the D-major quintet is “effervescent and exciting.”
And how do the musicians react to working with their Music Director in such a decidedly different capacity? Ms. Phelps finds the transition to be seamless: “We are extremely lucky to have such a gifted Music Director who not only is a wonderful conductor but who also has had excellent training as a violinist and violist. Playing chamber music with Alan is really quite fun. He completely steps out of his Music Director role. Chamber music requires a great deal of trust, and I think that we all know each other so well, musically speaking, that our performances on this series have been really quite special.”
Kicking off the Philharmonic’s June chamber music offerings are the VYPCs; held at Merkin Concert Hall, they are designed to introduce children ages 3 to 6 to classical music through an active, hands-on experience provided by a chamber-sized group of musicians. Violinist Fiona Simon explains: “We never dumb down the music. What’s special is how you present the ideas that are in the music.” The concerts, which are hosted by Philharmonic Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young, bear titles that reflect the subject being explored, and fit into a season-spanning theme (the June 5–6 concerts, “Forte and Piano,” is the final installment of Debussy and Friends). Each performance features a sophisticated work from the classical repertoire that is accompanied by a story, written by violist Dorian Rence and illustrated by Marion Schoevaert. This educational series includes engaging activities, about which Ms. Simon says: “Before each concert we do about 25 minutes of musical games with the children. We figure out in advance what concepts we want to get across to them, such as tempo, pitch, and dynamics. For example, the kids love playing with the idea of tempo: after we demonstrate fast and slow, then the children move to the music while we change the tempo. Finally, they show us how fast they want us to play, and we try to follow them, sometimes with very entertaining results. It’s such a thrill to see three-year-olds get it. You see all the little light bulbs going on.”
Then there is the mainstay of the chamber programs, the Philharmonic Ensembles, also held at Merkin Concert Hall. Associate Principal Oboe Sherry Sylar notes that, “With the Merkin performances, we really let our hair down and enjoy the audience’s presence. We often make jokes or address them — there’s a family atmosphere, where we’re talking to them and they’re getting to know us personally. You don’t do that in a big orchestra, so in that regard these chamber performances are a lot of fun. They’re also challenging, of course, because in the orchestra you’re one voice of 106 and in a chamber group you’re one, say, of five, so every note you play stands out.”
Standing out is, in fact, another draw for the musicians who frequently perform in these scaled-down settings. “Playing chamber music is really the most rewarding and challenging of all musical experiences for me,” says Ms. Phelps. “It is so wonderfully intimate, allowing the players to craft their own interpretations. It really creates an atmosphere of give and take.” Ms. Sylar feels that playing chamber music with her Philharmonic colleagues enhances her performance within the Orchestra. “We’ve become so familiar with each other’s playing,” she reflects. “There’s now an instinctive quality to playing symphonic music that comes from performing solos or duets with these people for so many years.” Ms. Simon agrees, noting that immersing herself in chamber music affects her artistry overall. “I’m fortunate that I am a section string player in a great orchestra with great players,” she says, “but it’s good to have opportunities to really hear yourself well so you can keep playing at the highest possible level.”
Amy Hegarty is the former publications editor of the New York Philharmonic, and a current writer and editor for Santa Fean magazine.