From the blog

Chamber Music Big and Small

– by CMSCVA Artistic Director James Wilson

It’s summer time, and for a classical musician that usually means festival time, a point in the year where I put aside my usual projects and groups, and play with a more diverse group of colleagues in far-flung places. If you’re lucky like I am, this means going to some very interesting locations and experiencing completely different types of music-making. Over the next couple weeks, I would like to report from some of these festivals as a sort of first-person view of chamber music offerings.

Just having returned from playing in the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, one of the world’s biggest and most diverse classical festivals, I wanted to write a short blog piece about it. It’s really extraordinary, and in a couple postings from last year, I outlined what makes it so amazing and characterful. You can read these pieces here:

Being in Kuhmo made me think a lot about the theme of “large verses small.” The obvious starting point is physical – it is a huge music festival held in a small rural town, and there is a lot of energy and friction that results from this contrast.

Musically, Kuhmo thrives on large and small, not only as a concept but as numbers. The Artistic Director, Vladimir Mendelssohn, is a genius at putting together unexpected programs that capitalize on the quantity and quality of musicians he has at hand. For instance, one concert consisting almost solely of piano pieces by Liszt, Debussy and Granados, ended with a chamber orchestral piece of 20+ people playing Respighi’s “Trittico Bottechelliano.”

All of this contrast is entertaining and definitely keeps the ears wide open for experiencing sound. But it also made me think about the emotional impact of music and how that also can be relative. Large groups can sound intimate or trigger introverted emotions. Small groups or even one person playing a soft instrument can make big musical statements.

My personal experience in Kuhmo included both ends of the range.

The large –
In one concert of mainly contemporary Finnish music for small ensemble and voice, the last piece was Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela,” played by a full orchestra. Again the contrast in numbers was extreme – I was one of 10 cellists!  But what I found remarkable (and maybe this is because it was after all a great big ensemble in a chamber music festival) is that the sensitivity of the players was on a micro scale. There was a lot of attention to detail, not only from the instrumentalists, but also from the wonderful Dalia Stasevska, who conducted the piece from an amazing persepctive of intense quiet.

Dalia Stasevska

Dalia Stasevska

The small –
My highlight of the festival was performing early Baroque vocal pieces from Venice with the Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso – Strozzi, Monteverdi, Carissimi. This was completely an unforeseen revelation. In a festival where fantastic players are constantly rehearsing and performing “big guns” of the chamber music repertoire, it’s hard to keep focus on music that is so simple. But the music and the preparation of the music was so personal, intimate and human, it had a very large emotional impact on me as a player.

Romina Basso and James Wilson

Romina Basso and James Wilson

As a life-long lover of classical music, I wondered….

Why wasn’t I exposed to this music when I was young?
Does it touch me only because I’m at a particular stage in my life?
How it is that music written almost 400 years ago can seem so immediate!

These are large scale issues triggered by very small scale music.

At this point you might realize that this summer I am in a reflective mode. In gearing up to announce the upcoming season for CMSCVA, I have found myself doing a lot of comparison with other arts events. I have to say that I am happy to be presenting music that involves a small number of players – it’s my love. My goal and job now is to have this music make the grandest impact possible!

P.S. if you are curious to hear Romina Basso sing some music by Barbara Strozzi, click here  (you won’t regret it!)