They gather in fours to serenade us with strings. They tickle the ivories in tony Charleston homes, and bring on the brass in leafy parks. They veer from classical to tango to polka and from concert hall to cabaret. They are decked in classic black or perhaps whimsical purple socks.
Whatever the trappings or sartorial bent, these enterprises are collectively known as chamber music concerts. And they seem to be the rage in Charleston right now.
With longstanding offerings like Spoleto Festival USA’s annual Dock Street Theatre series and beloved mainstays like Chamber Music Charleston and the Charleston Symphony, there are ample options every week. In months like November, those can spike to nearly nightly.
The clue is in the name
Since Charleston’s earlier days, there has been a special spot for small-scale instrumental and choral ensembles of quartets or quintets or septets and such. The form is defined by its modest size, as well as the absence of a conductor.
Mainly produced to entertain those in the palace rooms of the 18th century, they were a must for all manner of composers, who churned them out to please the court. Joseph Haydn created them for Hungary's Nikolaus I, Prince Esterhazy; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did so for Frederick William II, King of Prussia; and Ludwig van Beethoven boasted a prolific output on behalf of his patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Vienna.
The Charleston connection
It’s no wonder that a Eurocentric, super-social Charleston would take its cues from cultural pursuits across the Atlantic, as well as from other American cities, including Boston and New York.
In 1766, the St. Cecilia Society was created as America’s first subscription concert organization, producing hundreds of concerts of mainly European composers in rooms like the Exchange Building, the Long Room and South Carolina Society Hall. Other historians claim it accounts for Beethoven’s debut in America.
So those composers were very much in the Charleston water. After all, the city’s long-held penchant for high-end hospitality would have lent itself to such enterprises, affording the swell set the perfect touch of modish music in those well-appointed receiving rooms.
“What I know for sure was that Charleston was always a chamber music town,” said Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster and principal pops conductor at Charleston Symphony, referring to its ubiquity in private homes. That’s also the understanding of Sandra Nikolajevs, president and artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston, which still performs regularly in private homes.
The Spoleto effect
Fast forward a couple of centuries when Gian Carlo Menotti launched Spoleto Festival USA with a chamber music series that took over the Dock Street Theatre for the span of the festival, folding in celebrated and emerging musicals, including emerging talents Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. Under the direction of Charles Wadsworth, it quickly became annual crowd-pleaser.
Since 1995, director Geoff Nuttall has lent his wit and whimsy to the series, donning those aforementioned colored socks, layering in musical education, going for laughs and always placing an emphasis on the sheer joy of listening.
It was just this boon that prompted Nikolajevs to found Chamber Music Charleston. Now in its 13th season, it began by creating year-round programming of traditional classical music, hosting concerts primarily in private homes with receptions following the performances.
“The inspiration was the Spoleto Festival, and their success during the two weeks,” said Nikolajevs, who serves as president and artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston. “There was such an appreciation and a demand for chamber music, but people were always sad when it was over.”
Their current demand has compelled them to expand to include venues like Sottile Theatre, Memminger Auditorium and South Carolina Society Hall, putting on about 60 concerts a year and selling out so regularly that they rarely market them. “The audience is growing,” she adds, and often includes younger patrons.
From the symphony
Charleston Symphony also has a well-established chamber music program. It avails of the organization’s structure, a hybrid of 24 core, salaried musicians augmented by per-service players.
“When they are on salary, we want to put them to work,” said Music Director and Conductor Ken Lam, explaining that the symphony then arranges the musicians in string, wind or brass or other groupings. “Naturally it became chamber music.”
That double dozen of musicians is busy. Some perform in a popular series of concerts each year at the Charleston Library Society. Others partner with cultural organizations, including the Gibbes Museum of Art to offer performances that are curated in keeping with current exhibits. Last week, a string quartet played to a packed house seated under the rotunda.
They go to schools, performing extensively as chamber ensembles to introduce students to instruments, and collaborate with the CSO youth orchestra. They play when school’s out, too, performing polka at Oktoberfest, in a brass quartet at the farmers market and around town in pubs.
The current crescendo
Launched last spring is Midtown Productions' “Midweek at Midtown” series, the brainchild of music director and pianist Chee-Hang See.
For See, it all started around a baby grand piano, which had been donated to the company, which often presents works in a cabaret setting. See had been working with Midtown Productions on some of their musical productions, and realized the rare occurrence for a Charleston theater company.
“I play with the symphony and I know so many musicians here who just want a space to perform,” said See, adding how difficult it can be to find such spots in Charleston.”This space is very different because we have tables and chairs and food and wine. It’s very cozy and it’s almost like back in Mozart’s time when people could be rowdy during concerts.”
And it was clear from the first season that the interest is there, with nearly full or sold-out shows in a room with a 120-person capacity. “It was very encouraging,” said See, who also observes that Midtown’s location in North Charleston offers new opportunities for residents in those different areas of the city.
“People love chamber music,” said Bekker, attributing it to the intimate settings. There is a great deal of repertoire, he added, as most every famous composer wrote for the chamber setting. Bekker is such a devotee that he has co-founded a two-week Chamber Music Intensive that takes place each summer at the College of Charleston.
There is also the Bach Society of Charleston, featuring historically informed performances with an emphasis on oratorio and choral works using period instruments. There is Q Concerts, a new series founded by violinist Lydia Chernicoff that has performed at Principle Gallery. There is the annual lineup for Piccolo Spoleto. And there are church offerings at places like Circular Congregational Church.
On campuses, there is Ashley Hall School’s Performing Artist in Residence Series. And there is the College of Charleston’s Magnetic South series, premiering 20th- and 21-century works.
A chamber music town
“There are incredible musicians moving to Charleston,” said Lam. “They are going to want to do things.”
With no conductor in sight, chamber music also provides a welcome moment of democracy for those who mainly perform orchestral settings, as the musicians tend to guide one another during the performance. The setting also lends itself to more artistic spontaneity.
“In a symphony, It’s a top-down thing," said See. "My individuality doesn’t show up as strong. But in chamber music, with three or four on stage, everyone brings something to the performance. I think that’s very rewarding to musicians.”
“There is not one boss” said Bekker of the artistic process, which also helps musicians listen to one another in a way that trains them for concert halls like the Gaillard. “It’s all for one and one for all.”
Perhaps Charleston has particular purchase with this format.
Bekker offers that the prevalence of concerts in houses and other smaller venues gives Charleston a point of distinction from places like New York, which produces chamber music mainly in big concert halls.
This much is as clear as a bell. Today, the intimate, stirring sounds of this time-tested music resonate often and excellently throughout our city.