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It's Friday evening, June 6 and members of the ever-shifting audience in Person Recital Hall on the UNC-CH campus scurry in and out of the hall between numbers, awaiting, or just finishing, their turns to perform. After an intensive week in the Chapel Hill Chamber Music Workshop, some 70 adult amateur participants of all ages and from all over the country, and even the world, show off their accomplishments in a marathon concert lasting some eight hours (broken up into an afternoon and evening session).
When summer comes around it's not only the kids who get sent off to camp. When they're through here, many of the participants will go on to other chamber music workshops, but the one at Chapel Hill must be pretty special given the number of people who return year after year - one pianist returns annually from Japan!
The first Workshop, twelve years ago, was the brainchild of David Arons, known to many Triangle music lovers as a moving force and ticket manager for the William S, Newman Chamber Music series during the winter. Arons served as Workshop librarian for the Director, clarinetist Don Oehler, who collected a coterie of renowned chamber musicians as coaches for all permutations and combinations of chamber ensembles. Simply putting together the syllabus and ensembles is a monumental task since the numbers, instrument combinations and ability of each year's crop of participants can differ significantly. Oehler assigns each member to several performing groups that meet for practice and coaching once a day for six days. This year's librarian Kathleen Budny - Arons, retired last year - collects all the necessary parts for each ensemble and prays that everything will be back in the Workshop music file box at the end of the week.
With so many returning participants, Oehler has to contend with a certain number of not so hidden agendas, that is, people who want to play together and/or who want to work on specific pieces. While taking these into account, he tries to ensure that everyone is also exposed to different players and unfamiliar repertory. This means that some of the end-of-the-week performances have started as sight reading exercises. But the point of the workshop is not to finish with a polished performance, but rather, to have learned concepts in musicianship that can be assimilated and developed for a lifetime of amateur music making.
At the final concert, the ensembles generally perform a single movement of a chamber work, although they may have practiced the entire piece together. To add to the challenge, most of the ensembles perform in the final concert, with individuals sometimes participating in as many as four or five works. The repertory is definitely standard - mostly 19th century, in fact - lots of Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, some Mozart and too much Saint-Saëns. For unusual combinations, such as clarinet, viola and piano, Oehler has to dig deep into the repertory for works by lesser composers such as Carl Reinecke, or a wind sextet by Ludwig Thuille. The absence of contemporary music is unfortunate but understandable since learning the score, much less achieving artistic ends can be daunting in so little time.
This year's Workshop enlisted 17 coaches - including several regular imports of international standing - who not only provide a week of master classes all day long but two concerts (see a list of faculty at http://www.unc.edu/depts/music/chamber-workshop/ ). The kickoff for the Workshop is always an opening faculty concert on Sunday afternoon. The June 1 program included the Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano by Paul Hindemith and the Sextet in C Major by Ernst von Dohnányi. Unfortunately, both are sprawling and complex works that require a lot of rehearsal time to do them justice, and this they did not get. The result was quite a number of glitches, pointing out to the workshop participants what obstacles they will have to overcome. The concert was dedicated to the retiring David Arons, who was present - as always - and received heartfelt applause from the audience.
But the highlight for faculty performance came on Monday night, when the Janus Duo - Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang - gave a duo piano recital. Rowan and Whang, both piano coaches for the workshop, have been playing duo piano for over ten years, and it shows: the excellent control of dynamics, timing and synchronization can only be achieved through years of playing together, so it is no wonder that returning participants would want to work with favorite colleagues from past years. The program consisted of two of Brahms' Hungarian Dances, Schubert's Fantasie in f minor, D.940 and Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. Closing your eyes, you could practically hear the pilgrims' procession in the opening and closing presentation of the theme.
If there is a down side, it is Person Recital Hall, an intimate but overly live space that makes balance particularly challenging. But this is a small matter compared to the overall quality of the experience. We are happy that CVNC goes out into cyberspace so that the Chapel Hill Chamber Music Workshop might snag a few more enthusiastic amateur talents in the year to come.