As promised in the January 2008 issue of Prairie Fire, the following article is the first in a series about the various approaches to the production and/or performance of chamber music. Readers are invited to review the January article where Charles Henry Bethea, executive and artistic director of the Lied Center for Performing Arts, provided an overview on chamber music.
"You have built castles in the air.
By Robert Narveson
Now, put the foundations under them."
— H. D. Thoreau, Walden, 1854
Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music, a group of Lincoln, Neb., citizens, sponsors performances by nationally and internationally famous chamber music ensembles. The name of the group, informally abbreviated to LFCM, was suggested by Larry Poston, a then-member of the University of Nebraska English Department, who along with several other faculty members was casting about for a way to bring top-flight musical performances to a city that was, at that time, sorely lacking in so important a sign of cultural vitality.
The dream of bringing about such performances was our "castle in the air." As citizens without institutional power or influence, we (the writer of this article was one of them) considered that, much as we would have liked to hear major symphony orchestras and the like, we could far more reasonably hope to bring together the resources to bring in much smaller groups, such as trios and quartets of performers.
And this is what LFCM has managed to do. Beginning in the fall of 1964, we began collecting potential member-subscribers (at the princely sum of $10 apiece), and by spring we had nearly 300 names. In addition, Norman Geske, director of Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (then just completed), had offered the museum's 300-seat auditorium for performances. On the strength of these promising developments, we boldly constituted ourselves as a board of directors and, hearts in throats, contracted for four concerts during the 1965–66 season, then sent out a call for our potential members to submit their $10 checks - which they did.
From our inception, we in LFCM had grandiose intentions. Everything was to be first class, befitting the quality of the ensembles who would play for us (our very first presentation was a concert by the renowned Amadeus String Quartet). Little things mattered to us. Our programs, for example, were printed on quality paper that made no annoying rustling when pages were turned. The pieces on the program were to be identified and described objectively and informatively, including dates of composers and of composition. Performers were pictured and described biographically. The auditorium at the Sheldon was visually pleasing and proved to have gratifyingly fine acoustics, with the quality of sound excellent throughout the space. (And it doesn't hurt that during intermission, patrons may enjoy the works of art throughout the Sheldon's exhibition spaces.) The great hall of the Sheldon had an excellent space for post-concert receptions, where patrons could enjoy light refreshments and meet socially with one another and with the performers. So it has continued to the present day.
The heart and soul of the chamber music repertory is the string quartet - two violins, viola and cello. The musical form for this combination of instruments was brought to perfection by Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century; prominent later masters of the form have included Mozart, Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Dvorak, Bartok and Shostakovitch - all Europeans. Among prominent American composers who have used this form are Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and John Corigliano, to name just a few.
Besides string quartets, there are abundant string trios, piano quartets and trios (no, not four or three pianos, but one piano along with string instruments), quintets, sextets and so on up to chamber orchestras of a dozen, two-dozen and more players; and not just groups of stringed instruments, but also of brass, woodwinds and even vocal groups - in short, any group devoted to classical music, broadly defined to include contemporary works, that fits, along with an audience, into a small hall. And, over the years, LFCM has had examples of nearly all sorts.
In its first few seasons, LFCM included on its program a concert by local musicians. Though LFCM eventually found such a concert impracticable, local musicians have since made a place for themselves on the chamber music scene as the Third Chair Chamber Players. The scene is now further enriched by the residence of the Chiara String Quartet with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Music. LFCM meanwhile has expanded to its current five concerts each season, all by national and international groups.
Because so many instrumentalists love to perform chamber music, it has often been possible for LFCM to book even prestigious groups of star quality, groups with names that every devotee of the art will recognize: not just the Amadeus Quartet already mentioned, but the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Borodin, the Fine Arts, the Moscow, and the Leningrad Quartets, and other illustrious and even exotic groups such as the Deller Consort, the Beaux Arts Trio, Quartetto Gelato, and Tashi, to name just a few. Our alert music committees have frequently managed to engage rising young groups, such as the Tokyo, the American, and the Colorado Quartets, before their growing fame priced them out of our range.
Faithful devotees of chamber music have kept LFCM going through more than 40 consecutive seasons, and during that span we have noticed changes, not in the music, but, for example, in the customary dress of both audience and performers. Formal dress - ties and tails for the performers, suits and dresses for the audience - once de rigueur, has become rare, casual dress the mode. And how the dollar has shrunk! In 1965–66, our original $10-per-season subscription price paid for four concerts; to pay for our five concert season today, the subscription price of $125 must be supplemented by donations and grants.
Like the Republican and the Platte Rivers in a dry season, the wellspring of subscribers and of willing and able volunteers who organize and perform every aspect of each LFCM season is sometimes precariously low, but so far has never dried up. Our organization continues to thrive, more or less, under leadership of its current president, Gunter Hofmann, formerly the presenter of Nebraska Public Radio’s nightly "After Hours" program (which lamentably retired with him). We call ourselves "a chamber-music-buying cooperative," of which each subscriber is a member with voting privileges. The board members are chosen through an annual election ballot distributed at one of the concerts.
For its 25th season, LFCM celebrated by presenting all 16 Beethoven quartets, with three eminent quartets - the Cleveland, the Mendelssohn, and the Vermeer - performing two concerts each. Will another such rare and ambitious treat be the fare of the 50th season, now not so far in the future?
Interested readers will find further information, including dates and programs of the current season, on the Internet at www.lfcm.org
'Chamber Music': A Prelude
Third Chair Chamber Players