Piece by piece: 30 chamber music groups to perform over the next six days

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
Student cellist Kellen Degnan rehearses Thursday in a School of Music studio for chamber music recitals scheduled today, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Arie Lipsky describes organizing the chamber music phase that School of Music students participate in as piecing together a 1,000-piece puzzle.

Nearly halfway through the season, School of Music students are selected and mixed up into chamber music groups. Thirty groups will perform five out of the next six days — at 2 p.m. today in McKnight Hall, at 2 p.m. Thursday in McKnight Hall, at 2 p.m. Friday in McKnight Hall, at 2 p.m. Saturday in Fletcher Music Hall and at 4 p.m. Sunday in McKnight Hall. All events benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund.

Lipsky, cello faculty and chamber music chair, works to make it all happen.

“I listen to everybody to see what they’ve played in the past, what they would like to play, is there a person they’d like to play with, is there a person they would not like to play with?” Lipsky said.

Lipsky then evaluates the parts, the skill levels, the ages and the desires of every student to try to find them just the right fit. Chamber music, he said, is important because of the refreshing freedom it provides for the students.

“For string players, playing in the orchestra is following a vision of the conductor,” Lipsky said. “And you’re a part of that vision. Chamber music — that’s where we discover our own artistic vision. We have a say in what we play and participate with other musicians as well.”

Lipsky described chamber music as small groups of two to eight musicians who perform without the aid of a conductor. Chamber music gives musicians an opportunity to stand out and express their own ideas through their music, he said.

For pianist Donald Lee III, finding a cellist for Rachmaninoff’s “Cello Sonata” was a daunting task. Pianists typically choose their chamber music pieces in advance and find string or woodwind performers to join them later on, Lipsky said.

“I learned the piece in the spring, and when I got here I saw so many cellists around,” Lee said. “It’s a really hard piece, so I figured I might as well play it again.”

Lee, who is at Chautauqua Institution for the first time this summer with the Piano rogram, ran up to a group of cellists and asked them if anyone knew the piece.

To Lee’s surprise, cellist Kellen Degnan said he did.

“I happened to be working on it for my grad school auditions,” Degnan said. “The funny thing is I had just been talking with the cellists about how much the staff accompanists are going to hate me for making them learn this piece.”

Lipsky said the School of Music makes an effort to connect and engage every student. Ninety-two students will take part in challenging music they’ve chosen for themselves from each of the three Programs — 71 from Instrumental, 14 from Piano and seven from Voice will participate.

“And when [Lee] says, ‘a hard piece,’ that’s an understatement,” Lipsky said. “It’s as difficult as a full-blown concerto for piano. It doesn’t get more hard.”

For Lee and Degnan, performing together is fun. Degnan said scheduling is their largest obstacle — working with Lee is painless.

“I’m all about chamber music. There’s so much more freedom,” Degnan said. “In an orchestra, as a string player, you’re told what to do by the conductor. And chamber music — you get to have a conversation with people about how you want the music to sound.”

Not all groups will see this camaraderie, Lipsky said. Chamber music tosses leadership roles back and forth — one instance, one person is a leader and, two measures later, they’re an accompanist — and that can cause some friction, he said.

“That is a great lesson in life. Compromises apply to every section in life,” Lipsky said. “But this is something that can be voiced. Their individuality takes over and we try to offer them all of these aspects because this is what builds a talented musician.”