Listening to chamber music

I went to a concert last night, part of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, in a renovated carriage house on one of the old sea captain estates along the main road into the town. If the festival hasn’t changed its home page since I set up that link, the picture on the festival web site home page shows another concert in the same space.

Early last week a Facebook friend, who has been a knitblog friend for years before Facebook, posted “concert this Friday in my carriage house.” Since I drive past Newburyport on the way to Maine most every Friday, it sounded as though I might be able to get there.

There was no trouble finding the address. I had to take a kind of deep breath and walk down the path alongside the immense house towards where the carriage house would be, and then guess where the entrance was. I saw some people standing by the door, a tall woman (matches the description of my blog friend) talking to two men. When she turned in my direction there was no question, and I said, “Hi Julia!” She said “Dean!” and gave me a big hug, then introduced me to the two men, “This is an old blog friend that I’ve never met.” One of the men was the architect for the building renovation, the other, the artistic director of the music festival.

The festival web site listed the concert at 6:30, including a reception; so I was only a little worried about being late because of traffic. It took just under two hours from Newton to Newburyport, just about 50 miles and interstate highway all the way, because of rush hour traffic on the route 128 part. I got there at five to seven, and there was plenty of reception left. My supper was cheese and crackers, a slice of quiche, and raw vegetables (I can’t find the e-acute to write crudites properly).

I actually spoke to a few people besides Julia. I asked the architect if the white sail things suspended from the ceiling were for acoustics, lighting, or just to break up the space. He said, “you’ve got all three of the reasons they’re there,” and expanded on them. I love it when I can ask something that’s not a dumb question!

The musicians were three young women, the Trio Cavatina, playing piano, cello, and violin, joined for one piece by the artistic director of the festival playing the viola. Not just any viola; the piece he played on was by Brahms, and the viola had belonged to a friend of Brahms, who likely had played that piece on that viola when the piece was newly composed.

I have mixed feelings about wonderful, special musical instruments. Yes, they are wonderful and special. Playing on an instrument with a history can give the musician a feeling of channeling the other people who have played it and a feeling of participating with the instrument’s maker in producing art. That can undoubtedly add to the quality of the performance. But in the final analysis, it’s what the musician puts into the performance that matters. Two months ago I heard a piece by Yusef Lateef, “Love and Humor”, on the radio; it sounded as though one of the main instruments was a squeaking balloon, but it was fascinating music. I have to say, though, that the instruments the Cavatinas were playing sounded beautiful, and so did the viola. I particularly like a good cello sound, and that’s what we had. I’m sure that Priscilla Lee would sound better on my mom’s cello than I would on Ms. Lee’s cello, and I’m not sure that I could tell the difference between Ms. Lee playing those two instruments. Probably she could tell the difference, and that would make a difference in her performance, and I’d be able to hear that. So I’ll give up and say yes, it’s good for good musicians to have wonderful, special instruments.

What I like best about a classical music trio is that I can hear all three parts separately at once. When I’ve played or sung in musical groups with a really good director I’ve been amazed at how the director can hear all the parts at once, not just as a mass of music but as separate parts. You can tell that when the director says, “trombones, you didn’t come in on time,” or “altos, let’s go over your part, I think some of you aren’t sure of the notes.” I still don’t know how an orchestra conductor can keep track of fifteen or twenty different parts. Three is about the most I can do if I concentrate, which I was doing at this concert. I was doing fairly well with the Beethoven piece, though there were lots of times when the violin was near the bottom of its range and the cello was near the top of its and I couldn’t be positive which was which. When the viola joined, I was lost. Four lines is more than I can keep track of.

By the intermission I was ready for a bio break. Was there a restroom in the building? I knew who would be able to tell me — I asked the architect.

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