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Chamber Music America

Compared to their larger peers, chamber groups have demonstrated remarkable adaptability.

by Drew McManus
January 2, 2006

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Chamber Music America
Chamber Music America_Drew McManus-Compared to their larger peers, chamber groups have demonstrated remarkable adaptability.
In the world of classical music, the majority of attention is directed toward large performing arts groups, like symphonic orchestras, opera companies, and chamber orchestras. However, there’s a swiftly moving current of smaller chamber groups moving under those larger surface ensembles.
 
Although all of these ensembles, large and small, are part of the overall classical music ocean, there’s significantly more variation among chamber groups. Regardless of this variation, Chamber Music America, a service organization representing chamber groups, defines chamber music as,
 
“…music for small ensembles in which players perform one to a part, generally without a conductor.
 
Historically, the term chamber music was restricted to Western classical music for small ensembles, such as the string quartet. Today, however, chamber music comprises many different musical styles and genres.
 
At the heart of this art form is a spirit of collaboration. Democratic in essence, chamber music demands that each individual engage in a close musical dialogue with the other performers. Their collective musical instinct, experience, knowledge, and talent guide the process of interpreting, rehearsing, and performing.”
 
This is a good definition of what contemporary chamber ensembles are and it serves to distinguish these ensembles from the confusing classification of a “Chamber Orchestra”, which are closer in design to symphonic orchestras; such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
 
These smaller chamber ensembles also differ in how they operate when compared to larger organizations. Most are driven by a business plan which is similar to an entrepreneurial driven for-profit model than a traditional 501c(3) nonprofit design. As such, the success of chamber ensembles depends on the ability of their members to market themselves to the public (or hire managers to do that for them once they become somewhat successful). As such, these organizations are subject to the harsh success and failure rates experienced by many for-profit startup companies.
 
This fact isn’t lost on chamber musicians; as a matter of fact, Chamber Music America’s mission statement reinforces that reality,
 
“The mission of Chamber Music America is to promote artistic excellence and economic stability within the profession and to ensure that chamber music, in its broadest sense, is a vital part of American life.”
 
To that end, the organization conducts an annual conference to help explore issues related to this unique and diverse field. This year’s conference, entitled Navigating in an Unpredictable Culture has sessions designed to build skills among their members in everything from artistic excellence to direct marketing.
 
Compared to their larger peers, chamber groups have developed these skills to become more adaptive to variations in the mainstream cultural consciousness. An excellent example of a chamber group that has enjoyed some success in this respect is the Turtle Island String Quartet (member, Chamber Music America). Just visiting the TISQ website reveals how different this group is to traditional classical music ensembles.
 
At the same time, you’ll discover chamber groups that are more closely related to traditional classical music ensembles, such as the Amelia Piano Trio (member, Chamber Music America). If you take the time to browse through CMA’s member list, you’ll discover just how much of a variety exists among chamber groups and presenters.
 
Another difference between chamber groups and larger performing arts organizations is the level of personal connection chamber groups establish between themselves and their audience. For example, one of the most successful chamber groups of all time, The Canadian Brass, is well known for their distinctly entertaining stage dialog as much as their artistic accomplishments. One of the astounding factors in this ability is they are equally successful at establishing this connection regardless if the audience is 40 or 4,000; a testament to their refined flexibility.
 
In the end, although chamber groups lead a more tenuous existence as compared to larger performing arts organizations, they have much greater endurance levels. What they lack in the “shock and awe” power delivered by a 100 piece symphonic orchestra, they compensate for in their razor edge adaptability and serving as catalyst for artistic and operational innovation. From that stand point, chamber groups will continue to serve as a loose confederation of ensembles which connect untold numbers of patrons with classical music.
 
Author’s note: I’m privileged to serve as a panelist for one of Chamber Music America’s conference sessions entitled “Blogging (or how to build an audience without leaving home)” on Friday, January 13th, 2006.

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