To be (a group) or not to be (a group)…. (turns out, we’re a group)

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumAs many of readers will remember, I’m working this week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival. I’m in residence here with my colleagues from my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo.(Mount Epomeo from the Covo dei Borboni, home of Ischia Chamber Music Festival)Of course, we’re called Ensemble Epomeo because the group came together here on the slopes of Mount Epomeo, the stunning volcano at the heart of Ischia, during last year’s festival. Our original mission was just to play one piece- the Schnittke String Trio. What an unbelievable piece to start with! As last year’s festival drew to a close, David, our violist mentioned that, given how well the rehearsals for the Schnittke had gone, we might actually have the makings of a trio and suggested we try to organize a few more concerts.All three of us have played in a lot of groups over the years, so we all were more than aware of what the odds are of a group of three players, no matter how good and no matter how simpatico, being or becoming a “real” string trio. The odds of failure are pretty high. Still, if you’re lucky enough to play with good colleagues to fail is to still be pretty good, so we all agreed to give it a shot.For me, the reason I was hesitant and the reason I decided to give it a shot is one and the same- the fact that we’re dealing with string trio, which I think of as by far the most challenging genre in chamber music. It’s more exposed than a quartet, the parts are more difficult (composers mostly think in four voices, so in trio, somebody is almost always playing 2 parts at once), and the repertoire is slanted towards the most difficult corners of classical music- big Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert. Having just done Schnittke, there is no guarantee Beethoven will also click.On the other hand, I’ve played in wonderful quartets and piano trios where we had enough time and opportunity to have a good run, find a sound and cover some repertoire. I’ve been pining for another quartet for over 10 years now since Masala finished up, and had ruefully assumed that ship had sailed, and had never really thought about string trio, but now that we’re at it, I’m excited to explore the genre.  There are some advantages to this genre over string quartet and piano trio. It’s amazing how much calmer rehearsals feel with 3 than with 4 musicians, and how much easier it is to play when all 3 instruments are string instruments, as opposed to 2 strings and a 9 foot cannon called a Steinway.We’ve been doing some concerts here and there throughout the year, but this week has been our second big immersion since last year, and we’ve got a busy month or so of concerts in the UK and USA coming up. There are two things in particular I am enjoying- first, the repertoire. We’re playing the astounding trio of Gideon Klein, the last work he finished before he was shipped to Auschwitz, and the Krasa Dance for Trio, also composed at Teresenstadt just before his deportation. More and more, I hesitate to mention the circumstances surrounding the composition of these pieces because I don’t think they need any special sympathy or consideration as pure music. These are major, major masterpieces. I’m sure that had Klein lived he would have been one of the most important figures in 20th c. music, on a par with Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.I’m also enjoying the different ground rules that come with being in a group. Often at festivals, the rehearsal dynamics are alarmingly similar to the dynamics of an orchestra rehearsal. Expect good preparation, insist on accountability, but on the other hand, work in broad contours, don’t micromanage or nitpick, and try not to pick at scabs. In a “real” group you all agree that we’re not just focusing on preparing a given work, but on creating a shared concept of sound and interpretation- investing the next concert while preparing this one.What this really means is that we do a lot, a lot, a lot of tuning work. I’m like a pig in shit doing all this intonation work. As a conductor, one has to remember you can only do so much tuning before revolt breaks out. Even then, the institutional dynamics of orchestra rehearsal mean that tuning work often feels (in spite of the best of intentions from the conductor) corrective and sometimes adversarial and punitive. The focus ends up being on the result. Also, with all but the best orchestras, there are always bound to be one or two unsolvable problems in a wind section…In chamber music rehearsals, the focus is on the process, and in particular on giving everyone a chance to understand the harmonic function of what they are playing. That means you’re not just getting things to sound “not out of tune,” but on getting to understand, at a very microscopic level, how each composer works with notes, intervals and chords. I can’t think of a better reason to call three musicians a group (other than the groupies).