Passion and Precision – the joy of chamber music

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It’s been ages – again – since my last blog posting.  Since then, I have been on two chamber music tours, played Mendelssohn and Bruckner, Shostakovitch, Mahler and many other composers, celebrated holidays with family far away, had 2 x-rays for separated ribs (ouch!), joined a new chamber music group, done a 21-day inner retreat, and so much else, too much to write…

First of all, let me say that as far as performing goes, in my opinion nothing beats chamber music for emotional involvement and satisfaction.  It’s the intimacy of bringing a piece to life with a small group of (mostly, but not always) like-minded individuals with common purpose, creativity, and my own personal motto of what I strive for in music, “passion and precision.”  It is the marriage of these two factors that make the magic happen.  I have the great good fortune of counting truly world-class musicians among my chamber music partners, and they are all the finest of human beings as well.  In the last 2 weeks of October, the Virtuoso Horn Duo and Friends (Kerry and me as the VHD, tuba player and brother-in-law extraordinaire Kyle Turner with magnificent pianist and dear friend Lauretta Bloomer on piano, the Friends) embarked upon a 2-week US tour, giving master classes, ensemble coaching, and concerts at the Manhattan School of Music, Penn State University, Malone University in Ohio, Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, the University of Missouri, the Cincinnati Conservatory, and the University of Western Michigan at Kalamazoo.  It was sheer pleasure to play together with Kerry, Laurie, and Kyle, all beautifully intuitive musicians with gorgeous sounds and totally professional stage presence.  It was also such a gift to listen to so many fine students in every location where we taught, not to mention the generosity of our hosts.

After our last engagement in Michigan, I flew from Detroit to London to play concerts and give master classes with the Ni Ensemble, my brass quintet.  It was the first tour for our newest member, trumpeter Bob Koertshuis (from Arnhem, Netherlands).  Bob, Heather, Leon, Dave, and I had a truly lovely week together, mixing hard work with lots of laughter, running the musical gamut between Berio at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to Frank Sinatra at a very cold outdoor barbecue charity benefit concert near Cambridge!  We also made a repeat appearance at the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Dance in Cardiff, followed by the best Thai meal I have ever eaten. In contrast to the breakneck pace of the Virtuoso Horn Duo tour, our schedule allowed us plenty of time to relax, go for walks in the country (one high point, literally and figuratively, was a hike up a hill in the Malverns, revealing a breathtaking view at the top), and of course a few pints here and there.  I treasure the sense of adventure, both musically and personally, in my Ni Ensemble partners, their love of experimentation, brilliant technique combined with great artistry, and the attention to detail carried along by a constant musical flow.  There are moments when we play together that I just want to jump up and shout, “Whohooooo” out of sheer exuberance!  We just had a photo shoot last week and will have our website ready to roll in the next few weeks.

The latest addition to my chamber music groups happened quite recently.  David Johnson retired from the American Horn Quartet, and the other members invited me to join them in his place.  I had been performing with them since last April, when health issues prevented David from taking part in the European tour, but becoming a member of the AHQ is a big thrill.  The quartet has a worldwide reputation and has been around since 1982.  I was only 12 years old in 1982!  Talk about stepping into a legacy…

The AHQ concerts are thrilling from the standpoint of the audience, but I can tell you after experiencing them from both sides of the podium, it’s a constant 10,000 volts on stage.  Before my first full-length concert with them last spring, I was a little nervous, but from the very first downbeat, there wasn’t a single second to think about anything other than the present moment.  The concentration doesn’t let down, ever, during or even in between the pieces – I felt myself constantly aware of everyone else’s parts, how I would articulate this note here, tune that minor 3rd there, breathe in the next phrase, fingers flying, pacing for the high notes, pulling out the stops for the climactic moments and soaring on the lyrical passages, mentally preparing for the next piece while taking bows for the one just completed…

Something I treasure from a fine chamber music performance is the instantaneous, almost telepathic communication between the members of each of my groups, which of course also has a lot to do with thorough preparation and rehearsal.  You have to put in the work to make it sound effortless!  Take huge risks, but only when hugely prepared for them.  The reward at the end of the performance is the ability to share the current of the music with the audience, and at the same time to experience that priceless feeling of emptiness and purity, like a huge wind just blew through my brain and left stillness in its wake.  For me, chamber music is a spiritual experience.  I love it.

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