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You Won’t Believe What Chamber Music Really Is

If you ask four musicians to define chamber music, there’s a good chance you’ll get four different answers. Chamber Music Northwest, the producer of Portland’s largest chamber music festival, sheds some light on the art form.

Presented by Chamber Music Northwest May 23, 2019

The Dover Quartet take a bow after a Chamber Music Northwest 2018 Summer Festival performance at the Alberta Rose Theatre.

If you ask four musicians to define chamber music, there’s a good chance you’ll get four different answers. There are some agreed upon qualities – its music played by a small group, in an intimate space, with one musician on each part – but the exact boundaries of the definition are far from clear. With the increasingly broad spectrum of influences contributing to chamber music, what chamber music is today may surprise you.

Sergiu Luca performs at the Chamber Music Northwest 1976 Summer Festival finale. Patrons would sit on cushions just inches from the musicians.

The original garage bands

Chamber music is classical music written for small groups of instruments to be played together in a room or “chamber” among family and friends, earning it the nickname "the music of friends.” Chamber music rose to popularity in the late 1700s with the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. While professional chamber musicians would perform for the wealthy, it was common for amateurs to play chamber music together at home for entertainment – in fact, chamber music was not regularly performed in concert halls until the early 1900s. In the 1970s, audiences at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival concerts sat on cushions on the floor, just inches from the musicians!

The Calidore Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2018 Summer Festival.

A conversation between musicians

Chamber music is performed without a conductor and is often described as a musical conversation. With no conductor in the lead, the musicians must communicate with one another from well-timed start to dramatic finish. Watching their subtle cues, expressions, and interaction with each other is as entertaining as the music itself. See the how the dynamic Rolson, Calidore, and Miró quartets play off one another in Chamber Music Northwest’s Fantasia: British String Masterpieces concert in the 2019 Summer Festival.

Work by Caroline Shaw, the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, will be performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 Summer Festival.

Image: Kait Moreno

New music

While classic chamber music includes some of the most celebrated work by composers like Bach and Brahms, living composers like Portland’s own David Schiff are writing exciting new music for chamber groups. Chamber Music Northwest’s [email protected] series features contemporary music and premieres of new music, this year including works by Gabriel Kahane, Caroline Shaw, Libby Larsen, Timo Andres, Mason Bates, and more. Plus, don’t miss the world premieres of a new piece by David Schiff and an original work by renowned bassist Edgar Meyer and his violist son George commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest this summer!

Heartbeat Opera’s Don Giovanni

Diverse styles

Chamber music embraces diverse styles including jazz, the sounds of Asia and Latin America, non-traditional instruments, small-scale opera, and more. Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 Summer Festival includes Portland jazz great and composer Darrell Grant’s celebrated The Territory, a blend of jazz and classical that explores the unique cultural and geological history of Oregon; a jazz clarinet performance by Ken Peplowski; and Heartbeat Opera’s “bold and vivid” (The New York Times) adventurous adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

A mother and her child enjoying a free Chamber Music Northwest family concert.

Music for everyone

Contrary to popular belief, chamber music is not just for people in sport coats or pearls! Chamber Music Northwest’s concerts are fun, casual, and informal – we’re talking t-shirts, shorts, Tevas, and pre-concert picnics before every concert at Reed College. Tickets to all Chamber Music Northwest concerts are also extremely affordable - just $10 for youth ages 7-25, $20 for ages 26-35, and $5 with an Oregon Trail Card through Arts for All.

In addition, Chamber Music Northwest will be presenting 3 free concerts this summer; The Rolston String Quartet, 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition winners and Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 Protégé Project ensemble, at the Portland Art Museum on July 2 and Parklane Christian Reformed Church on July 5, and a family-friendly performance at Reed College on July 20 by the Meyer family - Edgar Meyer, George Meyer, and Cornelia Heard.

Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 Summer Festival runs June 24 – July 28, 2019. Learn more about Chamber Music Northwest and buy tickets to their 2019 Summer Festival concerts on www.CMNW.org.