Throughout the orchestra’s history, members of the Chicago Symphony have performed together in chamber music ensembles. While CSO musicians are experts in the orchestral repertoire, the All-Access Chamber Music Series gives them the flexibility to select and prepare chamber music of their own choice, including works they’ve always wanted to perform but haven’t yet had the chance to do so.
Having total autonomy over the repertoire generates a different sort of experience between performers and their audiences. Acting principal horn Daniel Gingrich said, “Not only do I love playing [chamber music], I also love attending live chamber concerts where I experience the excitement generated by my colleagues presenting the chamber masterpieces they themselves have chosen.”
The All-Access Chamber Music series is part of a CSO initiative to present music across the Chicago area by welcoming audiences to Orchestra Hall and venues throughout the city. (Next up in the series is a concert by the CSO Chamber Players at 7 p.m. April 10 at Symphony Center.) In this spirit, members of the CSO form their own groups and curate their own concerts. All concerts are free of charge, and have been since the series’ outset. (The All-Access series is underwritten by an anonymous donor.) Musicians devote their own time to rehearsing and preparing for these recitals; they collect the sheet music, manage their own rehearsals and sometimes even write their own program notes.
Beginning with the 2016-17 season, half of the All-Access concerts were moved to community locations throughout the city: The Logan Center for the Arts, the Kenwood Academy and the South Shore Cultural Center. The addition of these venues reflects the CSO’s efforts to provide patrons with more options in addition to concerts downtown. The three remaining All-Access concerts are performed at Symphony Center.
The series often gives musicians an opportunity to share works of special personal meaning. For instance, bass Stephen Lester, member of chamber group music803, programmed his grandfather’s Three Old English Carols as part of an All-Access concert. Similarly, CSO viola and composer Max Raimi performed his Two Songs for Soprano, “Story of the Pennies” and “At My Wedding,” both inspired by his Jewish heritage.
A three-decade CSO veteran, viola Diane Mues is certainly familiar with rehearsing large-scale symphonic works. She also enjoys the chance to be creative in a different setting. “Chamber music is an intimate and personal way to make music,” she said. “As with social groups, an orchestra provides the rush of energy that’s possible in a large gathering, while a trio or quartet is like a cozy dinner party. In a smaller group, different things can be discussed in more detail, and everyone can enjoy each other’s distinct personalities. I love the opportunity for individual expression!”
Fellow viola Lawrence Neuman agrees and offers perspective on how playing chamber music can benefit the entire orchestra: “In general, playing it is a certain privilege when you spend most of your time playing in a wonderful, large ensemble like the CSO. In an orchestra, a string player’s goal is to blend in with the sound and avoid being heard individually. This helps the orchestra to sound its best and allows the music to speak most clearly to the listener. But in chamber music, it’s an opportunity — especially for us tutti string players — to take on more responsibility and challenge in terms of being heard as a single voice. The members of a given chamber group still strive to make a unified, cogent statement with the music, but we have total artistic independence in terms of the story that we want to tell and in the way we each sound. It’s a big deal for any musician to have access to that sort of occasion, and it affects us psychologically and musically in ways that benefit the entire orchestra.”
All-Access concerts are also highly accessible, thanks to the free-admission policy and informal atmosphere. The different settings allow audience members to sit closer to the instrumentalists, which lends an even more personal feel to the experience. The recitals also give CSO musicians a chance to connect individually with the community. “All-Access concerts are particularly fun because we often play for people who might not ordinarily attend a classical music concert,” Neuman adds. “Being in a smaller space allows for a different, more intimate experience from that of hearing a big orchestra.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.
TOP: Trio Calico (from left CSO violin Gina DiBello, cello Gary Stucka, and viola Youming Chen) performing at an All-Access Chamber Music concert at the Kenwood Academy High School | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017