Chamber music doesn’t always go with champagne: A Q&A with Sandra Nikolajevs
Mention chamber music to some folks and watch their eyes roll. Or glaze over. They assume that you are talking about that most rarified sort of classical music.
Ovation Concert Series
Later in the fall, Chamber Music Charleston starts a second short series at Memminger Auditorium, where both concert and table seating will be available.
Complimentary wine will be served to those seated at tables, and optional “Bistro Boxes” will be available for purchase. The three concerts are organized around specific time periods.
First is “An 1810 Viennese Salon” (7:30 p.m. Nov. 9), featuring music by Schubert and Schumann, and guest artists Andrew Armstrong on piano and Amy Schwartz Moretti on violin, who will be joined by CMC regulars.
The music moves to Venice with a program called “A 1790 Venetian Carnival” (7:30 p.m. March 1), featuring music by Genin, Vivaldi and Haydn.
The series ends with “A 1920 Flapper Party” (7:30 p.m. April 19), which includes music by Mozart, Gershwin and Poulenc. Armstrong will appear once again for this concert.
Sandra Nikolajevs, CMC artistic director, said she hopes this creative approach to programming and presentation will encourage audiences to experience chamber music for themselves. “We are always looking for different ways to get people excited about classical music.”
They imagine duets or trios or quartets performing at prissy cocktail parties or upper-class salons.
Mozart in the South Festival
Chamber Music Charleston has expanded its offerings over the years to include regular concerts and other events meant to reach a broader audience.
Its Mozart in the South Festival is a short series that programs classical and romantic repertoire, often in creative ways.
The opening concert is called “Beethoven: His Women and His Music.” It’s a collaboration with Actor’s Theatre of South Carolina. Presented at the Sottile Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, the show features actor Clarence Felder portraying Beethoven and musicians performing the composer’s Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70 No. 2.
The production explores Beethoven’s relationships with women and provides a deeper understanding of the maestro’s motivations, according to Sandra Nikolajevs, artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston.
On the following day, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., CMC offers its “Little Mozart Circus,” a free, family-oriented event at Marion Square. The circus will include a variety of short performances under a main tent, interactive performance opportunities and chances to meet and talk with local music teachers and arts organizations.
The series concludes with a traditional recital at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, 126 Coming St., 3 p.m. Sept. 22. This program includes music by Mozart, Kreisler and Tchaikovsky and features guest violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn.
Well, maybe they should think again.
Chamber Music Charleston, a local group of musicians devoted to the more intimate works of classical music, surely can exhibit a degree of sophistication, but these players are just as likely to present their programs in creative and down-to-earth ways.
This season, they are showing off the 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Stradavarius violin (to be played by guest artist Elizabeth Pitcairn); they are dramatizing Beethoven’s music through a collaboration with the Actor’s Theatre of South Carolina; and they are offering a series of three period concerts while plying their audiences with glasses of wine.
The Post and Courier caught up with the very busy Sandra Nikolajevs, president and artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston, to find out how it’s all going.
Q: Chamber Music Charleston is devoted to making classical music available in private and public settings, in schools and concert halls. Tell me about your growth since you started the organization in 2006, and how audiences have responded.
A: Our inaugural season in 2006 began modestly, with a handful of House Concerts (ticketed public performances in intimate private homes), a couple of Church Concerts and some in-school educational programs.
After continuing that format for a couple of years, we found that the House Concert was the format that really allowed us to engaged our audiences. Those performances would sell out months in advance and guests who left the performance were always so excited about what they had just experienced.
We wanted to capture that excitement and bring it to a larger space, but while the churches were beautiful venues acoustically, it just wasn’t the right space for us. We experimented with other larger venues, such as galleries, which also sold out quickly, and finally came upon Memminger Auditorium.
In the big, open space of Memminger, we were able to create an electric atmosphere with performances inspired by a central theme.
We also gave guests the opportunity to enjoy food and wine from small tables set around the concert stage during the performance, in addition to traditional theater seating. Audiences have responded favorably to those concerts, in addition to our occasional collaborations at the Sottile Theatre and Dock Street Theatre.
I feel that Chamber Music Charleston has reached its stride with a handful of these performances in larger venues, but our foundation remains the House Concerts.
Q: Lately, you have programmed creative and ambitious concerts, such as those in the Mozart in the South series and Ovation series. You’ve also collaborated with other groups and presented this repertoire in unorthodox ways. Are you responding to demand, or searching for ways to keep this music alive and interesting?
A: It is actually a bit of both. We have been propelled to larger venues to meet demand for tickets, but I have also realized early on that we have an obligation to keep moving forward and looking for new and exciting ways to show that classical music is something people should experience.
We have become known as an organization that creates exciting events, well beyond a standard classical performance.
From listening to a trio of flute, cello and piano in front of the Great Ocean Tank at the Aquarium to enjoying fine French wine while sitting at a bistro table in front of musicians playing music of Faure in Memminger Auditorium, audience members know they will have a complete social and musical experience when they come through the door.
Q: You’ve got a core group of 12 musicians or so, and freelancers you employ as needed. You are a performing musician yourself. How do musicians in the Charleston area manage all their commitments? Is there enough paid performance opportunities to provide an adequate income?
A: Chamber Music Charleston is very fortunate to have a core group of professional musicians who make their living through a combination of performing and teaching privately.
Music isn’t just a hobby, and this shows in the high caliber of performance we are able to achieve each time we perform before an audience.
Our musicians tend to be very well organized with their scheduling, and because they play at such a high level, they are in strong demand for paid performance opportunities in the local area and beyond.
Over the past couple of years, some of our musicians have performed with such formidable orchestras as the Atlanta Symphony and Richmond Symphony. They have all decided to make Charleston their home, though, and the community is so much richer for that.
Q: Your instrument is bassoon. How did you settle on that instrument? And how does the role of the bassoon differ when its part of a big orchestra versus part of a small chamber ensemble?
A: After trying different instruments, such as the piano and clarinet, one of my junior high band instructors introduced me to the bassoon. I was intrigued by this unique instrument from the very beginning, but it was through my study at the Juilliard School and Paris Conservatory that I developed a deep passion for the instrument.
I was inspired by how distinctive the instrument is, with a wide palate of colors and emotional qualities at its disposal.
In a large orchestra, the bassoon can either slide into the background while providing harmonic foundation or it can add important characters through solo lines. In these solos, the emotional qualities available to the bassoon can really shine, from the haunting opening of (Igor) Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and mourning lullaby in “The Firebird” to the jovial bouncing notes of (Paul) Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
In a chamber ensemble, the voice of the bassoon is always present and not easily covered (as it can be in a full orchestra).
The bassoon frequently is the only bass line in a chamber work, so it sets the tonal foundation for the work. It also has more opportunities to take solo lines.
The biggest difference is that in orchestral work the bassoonist, like all the other instrumentalists, almost always has to bow to the wishes of the conductor, while in a chamber ensemble each musician has an equal voice and provides direction for the piece.
Q: There is a lot of music in Charleston, yet you seem to have found a niche. Do you see the music landscape developing or changing in the area during the next several years? How so?
A: Charleston has enjoyed a tremendous history with classical music, going all the way back to the St. Cecilia Society of the early 1800s, a time when Charleston was on par with New York City and Boston for its cultural significance in the music world.
I believe Charleston will always have a strong respect for classical music and will continue to support musical endeavors, especially per-formances that are of high quality and thoughtfully presented. I see the opening of the new Gailliard Audi-torium on the horizon as the next catalyst of change in the musical landscape.
Even though chamber music may not be best suited for such a large stage, I very much look forward to hearing larger classical works come to life through the Charleston Concert Association, Spoleto Festival and Charleston Symphony.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902..