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OPINION: We Need To Talk About Chamber Music

22 May 2024

Veteran classical music writer Elizabeth Kerr looks at the debate of whether Chamber Music NZ's evolution will come at the expense of its loyal fanbase.

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Elizabeth Kerr

The intimacy and intensity at the heart of chamber music mean it can express strong and varied emotions. 

So can its audience - a group devoted to and knowledgeable about the repertoire and the musicians that perform it. 

Bringing in new audience members while continuing to satisfy your loyal core supporters is a challenge all performing arts organisations face. So, when Chamber Music New Zealand (CMNZ) recently made radical changes to its programme in the name of ‘audience broadening’, they probably expected some push-back. 

Is their new approach essential innovation? Or has CMNZ lost its way, going too far along a path that may lose the organisation the trust of its audience and threaten its existence?

It’s timely to have a conversation about the essence of this centuries-old yet very modern kind of music-making. Especially now, when cultural, genre and stylistic boundary-crossing have become an accepted part of all the arts including ‘classical’ music.  

We need to ensure that chamber music can move forward in a dynamic way, maintaining its commitment to the highest standards of classical performance, taking its current audience with it while opening the door to new chamber music lovers.

European beginnings

To make change, you need to understand where you’ve come from. 

One of the most quoted definitions of chamber music was penned by a poet. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “You listen to four sensible persons conversing, you profit from their discourse, and you get to know the individual character of the instruments.” 

He was writing about a string quartet, but chamber music’s conversational style - dating principally from the quartets of Haydn - has remained a major part of the appeal of this branch of classical music till the present day.

Chamber music is classical music. Its name derives from the idea that this is music for a small space. In the 21st century, chamber music occasionally finds its way into a large concert hall, but the ideal venue is still one that houses a smaller audience, one that can be close to the intimate exchanges of the musicians and can feel a part of - or at least an eavesdropper on - the musical conversations.

Each member of a chamber ensemble - whether duo, octet or something in between - has sole responsibility for their line of music. 

It’s a democratic genre, in which leadership passes around the ensemble. Interpretation is collaborative and generous – each musician has a voice in how the composition is presented, and the ensemble members listen closely to each other.

This also means performances can be wonderfully spontaneous, flexible and even improvisatory.

Because musicians and audiences are not widely separated, chamber music is usually acoustic. There is seldom a need nor place for amplification in this intimate, deep-thinking, close-listening world. The electrified - and electrifying - Kronos Quartet is a rare contemporary example, offering new ways to think about chamber music without departing from its musical essence. 

Violinist Ben Baker, Artistic Director of the adventurous At the World’s Edge Festival (AWE) in Central Otago, says of chamber music “You’re not looking at a smaller scale, you’re looking at higher intensity.” 

And chamber music’s content? Although there are sometimes texts and voices, most often chamber music is instrumental. It can be about the music itself, how melodies are woven together, the fascinating harmonies, the composer’s architecture. 

It’s also a wonderful vehicle for expression of feelings or personal narratives - Janacek’s String Quartet Intimate Letters, for instance, or Shostakovich’s searing 8th String Quartet, written in three days as a response to the devastating destruction of the German city of Dresden.

CMNZ's origins

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Voices NZ Chamber Choir directed by Karen Grylls. Photo: Supplied.

The beginnings of CMNZ are well-traversed in John Mansfield Thomson’s excellent history, Into a New Key. The organisation began life as the Wellington Chamber Music Society with a concert in 1945, before the end of the 2nd World War.

Over almost eight decades since, substantial audiences have enjoyed an annual programme of touring classical chamber groups. Internationally famous ensembles and chamber groups and recitalists resident in New Zealand were presented; sometimes international musicians collaborated with those who live here.

Activity peaked in the 1970’s and 80’s. A tour in 1980 by Peter Maxwell Davies’ UK group, The Fires of London, brought an unforgettable modern programme. “Early” music was embraced with visits by such stars as Christopher Hogwood’s The Academy of Ancient Music and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and his ensemble. Les Percussions de Strasbourg and the Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble were among the visitors who showed the ambition and commitment of the small organisation. 

CMNZ’s educative role has always been important. 

Audiences have learned about the power and scope of chamber music from international visitors and New Zealand musicians have been inspired by their visiting colleagues. 

CMNZ’s NZCT National Secondary Schools Competition, now in its 59th year, has provided platforms, coaching and mentorship to huge numbers of young chamber musicians, and many who have participated are now starring as professionals on our concert stages.

What’s happening now at CMNZ?

In 2021, when CMNZ was planning for the years 2022-24, the arts environment - like everything else - was disrupted by COVID-19. Lockdowns were still unpredictable, international travel problematic, the future uncertain. 

CMNZ looked closely at how its work fitted with other New Zealand organisations presenting chamber music – the associate chamber music societies in the regions, independent presenters like Christopher’s Classics in Christchurch, the burgeoning circuit of regional arts festivals and the growing number of chamber music festivals around the country.

The national touring organisation also considered what kinds of chamber music contemporary composers were creating and what new collaborations were happening. An important developing strand of New Zealand composition, for instance, has seen composers and musicians working with Māori traditional instruments (taonga pūoro). Other stylistic boundaries are being crossed. The context for CMNZ as a national chamber music organisation in Aotearoa New Zealand has changed a lot since its early beginnings.

In recent years, CMNZ has attempted to widen its definition of chamber music, in part to acknowledge how the organisation sees the art form itself changing, but also to broaden and diversify its audience. 

NZTrio undertook a 21st birthday tour presented by Chamber Music NZ in 2023  Image credit- Chris Watson:SOUNZ.jpg
CMNZ presented NZTrio's 21st birthday tour in 2023. Photo: Chris Watson/SOUNZ.

By 2023, the annual CMNZ programme of national tours included just one international group - the crack young Belgian-Irish string quartet, the Sonoro Quartet - with New Zealand pianist Tony Chen Lin, as well as a 21st birthday programme from NZ Trio, a provocative offering by composer John Psathas and pianist Michael Houstoun, and Dr Karen Grylls with the Voices NZ Chamber Choir in a stunning reimagining of Mozart’s Requiem by composer Robert Wiremu. 

The NZ String Quartet with pianist Piers Lane also presented a CMNZ mini-tour, with private sponsorship, in Wellington and Nelson.

Meanwhile, traditional notions of chamber music were further challenged that year by the inclusion of concerts called AWE, a collaborative project by Horomona Horo, (taonga pūoro) and composer Jeremy Mayall (keyboard, piano and electronics), by Hine Hōia, a reimagining of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with themes from Māori oral storytelling, and by concerts from French for Rabbits, a prize-winning group led by singer-songwriter Brooke Singer that occupies, according to music writer Graham Reid, “a space between psych-folk and dream-pop”.

In 2024, the annual CMNZ touring schedule has both shrunk further and departed even more starkly from what many of us understand as chamber repertoire. 

Audiences, supporters and donors, already startled by some of the 2023 offerings, are now being vocal in their disappointment. 

The UK Brodsky Quartet performed for CMNZ in March with didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton. Photo: Supplied.

Most centres are offered no more than three concerts of acclaimed chamber musicians - the legendary UK Brodsky Quartet with digeridoo player William Barton in March, the Calefax wind ensemble from the Netherlands in September and in October/November the Young Virtuosi, a duo of violinist Yeyeong Jenny Jin, winner of last year’s Michael Hill Competition and pianist Jeonghwan Kim, who won the 2023 Sydney International Piano Competition.

Well-loved and internationally acclaimed New Zealand groups like the CMNZ-established NZ String Quartet and the NZ Trio are nowhere to be seen in the 2024 line-up. The rest of the programme includes instead two well-established acts from New Zealand performing arts, an album-promotion tour by ‘country-noir’ singer-songwriter Delaney Davidson, and the highly respected Indian classical dance director/choreographer Vivek Kinra, with his Mudra Dance Company in a programme called Vismaya.

Although it’s difficult to see how these two tours fit with the brand Chamber Music NZ, new Chief Executive Michelle Walsh believes they have the intimacy and immediacy that reflects the organisation’s commitment to “music up close”.

Long-term subscribers, supporters of and donors to the organisation, having learned over the years about the essence and range of high-quality chamber music, are unconvinced by CMNZ’s view that simply by being “up close” any performance can be called chamber music. 

Helen Philpott - daughter of CMNZ's early leading figure Fred Turnovsky and Trustee of the significant Turnovsky Endowment Trust - is one of many who are deeply disappointed with and concerned about the direction of the organisation. 

“Fred would turn in his grave,” she told me.

Walsh believes that the issue is simply “change is difficult” and that with good communications, CMNZ can “bring the audience on the journey with us”. And if audiences choose not to follow the new path, they can “pick and mix” the concerts they want. 

The recent Davidson tour sold out, but only a few CMNZ regulars chose to attend.

Classical music organisations like orchestras occasionally present concerts backing popular rock musicians, but there is little evidence of crossover audience to their classical offerings. International studies have shown, instead, that well-marketed exciting classical music events are already attracting a younger, more diverse audience.

Don’t all art forms change over time?

Classical music - with both live and technological means of re-creation and reproduction available - offers its audience the luxury of being able to look back in history, to appreciate the new while understanding where contemporary developments have come from. 

Presenters of concerts can offer context that shows how the composers and musicians of the past have laid the foundations of 21st-century music-making.

CMNZ has been taking its audience on a journey of change for many years by introducing the music of the 20th and 21st centuries and the work of New Zealand composers alongside traditional masterpieces. Today, such repertoire is taken for granted in chamber music programmes, and world premieres are common and well-received.

Chamber music is a particularly versatile branch of music-making. Light on its feet, it lends itself to innovative collaborative relationships combining past glories with new ideas. 

Like the string quartet and didgeridoo combination in Barton & Brodsky, local chamber musicians have collaborated for many years with taonga pūoro musicians, with choreographers and dancers, and with instrumentalists not always found in classical concert halls. Such collaborations are an enhancement of the art form, maintaining its integrity and quality, and this future-focused path has attracted new audiences while broadening the experience of long-term chamber music fans.

A recent example was performed a few months ago at the ever-adventurous AWE Chamber Music Festival in Central Otago. Outstanding violinist Ben Baker performed Bach’s second solo Partita, ending with its magnificent Chaconne, interspersed with music by New Zealanders Karlo Margetić and Gareth Farr, while contemporary dancers Jahra Wasasala and Ooshcon of CONJAH wove movements around him. 

The large audience was diverse and enthusiastic, with many young people highly intrigued by the collaborative performance.

Surveying the scene

Those who love chamber music in Aotearoa have a range of performances available throughout the year from regional and independent presenters in towns and cities across the country. 

While writing this article, I’ve been to three chamber-sized concerts, which I’ve written about here. As noted above, there is also a burgeoning circuit of chamber music festivals in New Zealand. Such festivals put together a line-up of musicians who together form a range of ensembles that enable them to explore the repertoire.

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The internationally acclaimed Takács Quartet worked with the NZ String Quartet at this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Supplied.

All are led artistically by chamber musicians with a life-long commitment to the art form and expertise in programme curation.

The biennial Adam Festival in Nelson is the oldest and continues to attract international star ensembles and soloists, a diverse range of New Zealand artists and large audiences. 

The Martinborough Music Festival presents four chamber music concerts annually over a weekend in late September in the charming Wairarapa town, selling out the local town hall with enticing programmes of chamber works traditional and contemporary played by both young and seasoned musicians working together. 

Martinborough has just announced its 2024 programme, as has the newer At the World’s Edge Festival, which is presenting its 4th annual Festival among the mountains in October. A two-concert festival on Waiheke Island made its debut earlier this year and there are conversations underway about another Auckland-based event.

Where to now for CMNZ?

There are many options now for the dedicated chamber music lover in Aotearoa, with festivals, regional societies, independent ensembles like the contemporary group STROMA as well as the programmes of CMNZ. 

To maintain its position as New Zealand’s leading presenter of chamber music, it seems important that CMNZ look deeply at its proud history and listen carefully to both musicians and its audience, the source of so much support over such a long period. 

The assumption that people need merely to “accept change” and be willing to be talked around to a new definition of chamber music underestimates both the depth and persuasive power of chamber music itself and the intelligence of those who play and love it.

There is certainly a broader audience for chamber music, but it will be the marvellous music itself that will communicate with and persuade new music lovers to enjoy it, not a communications strategy. 

Chamber musicians, young and older, hold the key to programming innovation and their voices need to be heard. 

With such a wealth and diversity of music available from many centuries, the art form will continue to change and develop, but forcing completely different artistic genres under the umbrella of CMNZ may prove self-destructive. 

Audiences may simply seek their chamber music experiences elsewhere.


This article was first published at Elizabeth Kerr's Classical Music site, Five Lines.